MADRID — Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano debuted with a low-key, 1-0 Liga win at home to Malaga on Saturday night; the performance was out of keeping with the brand-new stadium, but the score fit well with the results-only focus of Diego Simeone’s rojiblancos.
Antoine Griezmann got the game’s only goal just past the hour mark, with the added irony of a player who almost left Atletico for Manchester United in the summer going down in history as their first scorer at the Wanda.
“First I am happy with the win, as it was important to get the three points at home,” Griezmann told BeIN Sport at the final whistle. “I am very happy to have scored the first goal in this magnificent stadium. For me this is the best stadium to play in, not just as it is my club’s. Hopefully the fans cheer us on in the most important games. We are picking up our rhythm bit by bit.”
Even though Atletico’s plan to move from the crumbling, city-centre Calderon to the remodeled former athletics stadium near the city’s airport was three decades in the making, there were fears even this week about whether all would be ready on time. However, any concern about leaving behind their beloved old home or the financing of their shiny new facility, were set aside during an emotional pre-game ceremony.
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The club’s four former stadiums were remembered on the pitch, before the match ball was delivered by parachute by members of Spain’s air force. Then, almost 68,000 red and white flags fluttered as the teams walked out. There was a real sense of pride among those present as club legend Jose Garate accompanied fans’ hero Fernando Torres and current youth-teamer Hugo for the “honour kickoff” just before the game began.
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Understandably, Simeone’s side began the game at a high-tempo and there were early half-chances for Angel Correa, Koke and Thomas Partey. However, once the early energy faded, Atletico struggled to break down a Malaga team that had lost all three of its previous outings this season.
Former Atletico youth teamer Borja Baston had the best chance of the opening 45 minutes and there were sighs of relief around the ground when home goalkeeper Jan Oblak did well to save from the now Malaga striker. By half-time there were fears the first night at the Wanda was going to be an anti-climax.
Simeone changed things at the break, replacing midfielder Thomas with winger Yannick Carrasco. That worked for a while — Carrasco shot wide, while Koke and Saul Niguez were both denied by Malaga goalkeeper Roberto Jimenez (another former Atletico youngster) — but things soon went quiet again.
With Torres standing on the touchline, ready to enter in search of a fairytale winner, the breakthrough finally came. Correa drove past his marker and provided a fizzing low cross that Griezmann met with a tidy finish at the near post. That was more or less that in terms of drama, apart from Oblak saving Malaga substitute Diego Rolan’s late effort.
“The first night at the new stadium, I did not imagine it any other way,” Simeone said in his post-game news conference. “It was emotional at the start, I have never seen anything like it as a player or coach. The flags, the fans. You cannot help but look around and be affected. We dominated, but making fewer chances than recently. When the goal came the situation then changed. Of course we must improve, but hopefully all this will make us stronger.”
Griezmann, for whom the winner was his first goal of the season, has not looked himself so far this season, perhaps affected by all the summer’s drama, but the Frenchman has joined Atletico legend Luis Aragones, who scored the first Calderon goal in 1966, in the club’s history books.
“We are talking about an absolute ‘crack’ like Luis, and a ‘crack’ like Griezmann,” Simeone said. “For sure Atletico’s fans love to have players like this to enjoy, but the most important thing today was to win the game. We need [Griezmann] at his best and, bit by bit, he is becoming that decisive player again.”
As the clock approached 11 p.m. local time, tired but happy home fans stayed on after the final whistle for a fireworks display to finish off the entertainment. This was no damp squib but the atmosphere will likely be turned up considerably when Chelsea (Sept. 27), Barcelona (Oct. 14) and, especially, neighbours Real Madrid (mid-November) visit.
“Tonight was a party for all Atleticos and would not have been possible without everyone who has been through this club over the years,” said Torres. “We have all lived it very intensely, leaving the Caldeorn last year and now this. These are moments that will go down in history; we will remember them forever. To be part of this is an honour and a responsibility.”
Rojiblanco fans heading into the still-to-be completed surroundings of the stadium were content that the first night at the Wanda went off without a hitch. Everyone seemed impressed by the new stadium and they all knew that what really counts for Simeone and his team was, as always, winning the game.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan