Real Madrid's chances of retaining their European crown took a severe blow prior to kick off at the Santiago Bernabeu. With Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, and Luka Modric unavailable due to injury, and Marcelo serving a suspension, Carlo Ancelotti was forced to make several key personnel changes.
Once again, this was a battle of the 4-4-2: Real's possession based philosophy against Simeone's renowned reactive football. Ancelotti turned to Javier Hernandez upfront and Sergio Ramos in midfield, while Isco replaced Bale on the right. Simeone's selection, however, offered improved attacking impetus with Saul on the flank, with Koke and Tiago in midfield.
With that being said, despite several player alterations, the pattern of the match remained. Real dominated, whereas Atletico soaked up pressure and aimed to break on the counter. Yet, Real's frustration and persistence to quickly shoot on goal was displayed in the first minute when Toni Kroos fired his wayward effort into the stands. Ronaldo was also guilty of looking to shoot when space opened up, only to be swarmed by Atletico players.
With Bale unavailable, Ancelotti's wide men, Isco and James often moved into central areas - the latter occasionally pushed into an advanced position in the right channel. This forced Simeone to move away from a 4-4-1-1, and adopt a 4-5-1, pushing Griezmann to the left and Saul in midfield.
Simeone's change ensured Atletico wasn't overloaded in midfield, whereas neither Ronaldo, nor Hernandez could drop between the lines to receive the ball. Hernandez, however, was the key man of the match. Although his finishing throughout was poor, his movement was excellent, often combining with James down the right.
Within a three-minute span, Hernandez was involved in two moves that should have resulted in goals. First he nodded a tame effort at goalkeeper Jan Oblak from a Dani Carvajal cross. Then, the Mexican striker combined with James on the right before being played into half space, but with no options available, the Real striker fired his shot into the side netting.
But where Real lacked penetration in central areas - the running of Angel di Maria may have been useful here - the home side pegged Atletico deeper into their half with the advance positioning of the full-backs and Kroos' freedom in midfield to freely spray passes across the pitch. The German completed all 19 attempted passes in the final third, whilst achieving a 97 per-cent passing rate.
Atletico struggled to play their way out of Real's half, whereas the Real centrebacks contained Mario Mandzukic's threat upfront. Madrid couldn't pass their way through a Atletico's organized defence, but the away side lacked the pace to bypass Real's counterpress and storm into dangerous areas.
The best chances from both sides came from pressing higher up the pitch. Jesus Gamez dispossessed James but his shot was directly at Iker Casillas, and Carvajal's pressure on Mandzukic led to James instantly feeding Ronaldo in the box, but Oblak's heroic keeping kept the score-line level. Simeone opted for Gabi's experience and reliability in midfield at the start of what became a scrappy second half, but neither side improved in open play, resorting to hopeless crosses into the box as their sole method of attack.
Still, where Ancelotti clearly didn't have faith in his options on the bench, Simeone's second change was quite peculiar. Simeone sacrificed his sole attacking option that offered pace by introducing Raul Garcia for Griezmann. Garcia's threat via set-pieces is undeniable, but Atletico's main issue was their inability to break quickly into Real's half, thus depriving the away side of a goal threat, as they couldn't surge into forward to win free-kicks in dangerous areas.
Nevertheless, it was James' creativity and Hernandez's movement that continued to harm the Atletico backline following Arda Turan's dismissal for a second booking. The latter cleverly turned Diego Godin to receive former's delicate ball into half space, but his rushed shot deflected off of Oblak for a corner. Hernandez notched a late winner following a terrific powerful run from Ronaldo to secure Real's birth into the semi-finals - another move based on combination play involving James.
Over the course of 180 minutes, Real dominated for long spells, and created the better chances, which fully validates their narrow victory. Turan's sending off benefited Real in the latter stages, but Atletico failed to cope with Hernandez's movement and James combination play in the right channel.
Frankly the scoreline doesn't justify Real's superiority over two legs, as Oblak's heroics and Hernandez's poor finishing prevented a Real onslaught.