Atletico outplayed a sluggish United for the majority of the match at the Wanda Metropolitano and might have considered Joao Felix’s early goal scant reward heading into the second leg at Old Trafford in three weeks’ time. But rather than extend their advantage, Atletico squandered it, Elanga racing onto a Bruno Fernandes through ball and applying a cool finish with 10 minutes left to earn United a draw that felt like a victory.
Atletico’s Sime Vrsaljko had already hit the crossbar at the end of the first half and Antoine Griezmann was also denied a late winner by the woodwork after Elanga’s equaliser. But while United will breathe a sigh of relief at the result, this was another performance to prompt serious concerns about their progress and direction under interim coach Ralf Rangnick.
In the first half, they failed to register a single touch in the Atletico Madrid box, the first time that has happened to a United side in the Champions League since at least 2005. Cristiano Ronaldo was up against a familiar foe in Atletico, with 25 goals in 35 games against Diego Simeone’s team and 10 in his last 10, including three hat-tricks. But the Portuguese cut a frustrated and isolated figure up front, his biggest contribution as a target for the enthusiastic whistling and booing from the Atletico supporters.
Both Rangnick and Simeone have a veteran scorer whose needs perhaps come at the expense of the team, but while Rangnick started the 37-year-old Ronaldo, Simeone dropped the 35-year-old Luis Suarez, with Felix and Angel Correa named up front instead. Ronaldo was whistled before kick-off, along with former Real Madrid defender Raphael Varane, and a fervent atmosphere provided the backdrop for a scintillating Atletico start.
United were nervy as Harry Maguire needlessly headed behind for an Atletico corner before an anxious Fernandes touch allowed Jose Gimenez a shot at goal but Victor Lindelof made an excellent block. United looked uncomfortable playing out from the back and it was from a skewed David de Gea clearance that Atletico won a corner. United headed away but Renan Lodi swung in a brilliant cross from the left and Felix was there to meet it, his fine diving header flying in off the post.
Atletico were faster, hungrier and firmer in their approach. They kept robbing United of possession but lacked the final pass. United grew frustrated, Ronaldo in particular, and for 10 minutes the game was diverted to his histrionics, the boos and whistles growing louder. It could have been worse at half-time as Vrsaljko headed against the crossbar, Lodi’s cross coming quick to him at the back post but the net was gaping.
United improved and there was a period around the hour-mark when Atletico seemed to be ceding control. There were precious few chances though and when Ronaldo curled a free-kick harmlessly over, Atletico looked close to victory. Instead, United put together their best and, only, fluid move of the match as the ball was popped through midfield before Fernandes threaded Elanga through. Atletico’s Reinildo Mandava committed himself but fell, allowing Elanga to skip clear and send an excellent finish rolling into the far corner.
Griezmann, on as a substitute, curled against the crossbar with four minutes left but a deflated Atletico were unable to restore their advantage.