Stefan Savic has always been an enigma – and Wednesday night showed the Atletico Madrid defender’s dark side in all of its shame.
On the pitch, with the ball in the play, the 31-year-old Montenegrin was a colossus as Atletico nullified Manchester City with relative ease. He didn’t commit a single foul over the two legs and was tidy in possession.
Yet we saw the worst of him in the shameful scenes that marred the end of the gripping Champions League quarter-final.
After Phil Foden was kicked by Savic’s central defensive partner Felipe in the 90th-minute, earning the Brazilian a second yellow, the young England star rolled back on to the pitch to try and kill time – but Savic was having none of it.
Stefan Savic started a mass brawl by dragging Manchester City’s Phil Foden off the pitch
Savic somehow escaped a red card for headbutting Raheem Sterling during the melee
The red mist descended as he sprinted across to forcibly try and drag Foden off the field of play. City substitute Oleksandr Zinchenko was warming up in the vicinity and stepped in to stop Savic, resulting in a massive melee involving dozens of players, substitutes and staff from both sides.
Savic was just getting warmed up at this stage. He headbutted Raheem Sterling – which the VAR somehow missed – then pulled Jack Grealish’s hair after being called a c*** by the City man.
Things eventually calmed down and City saw out what added up to 12 minutes of added time to progress to the semi-final, but the aggro inevitably continued at the full-time whistle with Savic once again at the centre of it.
He chased Grealish down the tunnel, desperate to confront City’s British record £100million signing, but was thwarted by the presence of security and police in the Wanda Metropolitano. He did, however, as a parting gift, start another mass brawl in the tunnel as team-mates of the pair raced to try and intervene.
The Montenegrin defender pulled Jack Grealish’s hair, then chased him down the tunnel
So just what is Savic’s problem? We all know Diego Simeone’s sides are masters of the dark arts who were never going to take a Champions League exit well – and City were not entirely innocent either – but Savic took things to a whole new level all by himself.
It doesn’t take a genius to realise that Savic had extra incentive to beat City, having flopped in a one-year stint in the Premier League under Roberto Mancini in 2011-12.
He has a Premier League winners’ medal to show for his time at the Etihad and has had a decent career since – winning La Liga and the Europa League with Atletico – but the quarter-final was his first time playing against his former club and he would have been desperate to prove a point. Hence the strong performances both home and away. Hence the emotional outburst of anger when defeat loomed.
‘I watch the Premier League all the time and I know it’s the place to be, so I am looking forward to helping this club achieve great things,’ Savic said after he was signed on a four-year deal from Partizan Belgrade in the summer of 2011.
Savic won the Premier League title in his only season at Manchester City in 2011-12
It must rankle with him then that he lost the trust of Mancini, who was active in getting him off the books just a year later.
It all started so well for Savic in Manchester. He won his first 12 games as a City player and was looking like a smart piece of business, with Mancini easing him in as a back-up to first-choice pairing Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott.
But then it all fell apart quickly when Savic was thrust into a crucial run of games in January, with Kompany suspended for four matches in the space of two weeks and Kolo Toure away on Africa Cup of Nations duty.
In the first of those matches, Savic’s wild lunge on Daniel Agger gave Liverpool a penalty which Steven Gerrard converted to earn them a 1-0 victory at the Etihad in the first leg of their League Cup semi-final.
A week later, City needed an injury-time penalty from Mario Balotelli to beat Tottenham 3-2 after another Savic howler had gifted Jermain Defoe an equaliser.
With Savic now identified as a weak link and City’s fans turning on the youngster, Liverpool then targeted him in the second leg of the League Cup semi-final at Anfield. So bad was Savic’s performance that he was hooked at half-time, with City going on to lose 3-2 on aggregate. That was his 17th appearance of the season. He would make just three more as City memorably held off Manchester United to win the title and was used as a makeweight in a deal to sign Matija Nastasic from Fiorentina that summer.
A clumsy foul on Daniel Agger gifted Liverpool victory in the League Cup semi-final first leg
A week later Savic gave the ball away to Jermain Defoe to allow the Tottenham striker to score
While the consistency of Savic’s performances over his career has to be admired – Simeone, after all, has trusted him for seven years – he is still clearly capable of the mental lapses which ended his City career before it began. It is this which means he will be remembered as a decent defender with a propensity for losing his head, rather than the world class defender City had hoped he would become.
‘There’s a jealousy there,’ said Savic’s former team-mate Lescott when analysing his antics for BT Sport on Wednesday night – and watching the footage it would be hard to disagree with that.
‘It must be the Gucci deal that he got,’ Rio Ferdinand only half-joked when assessing Savic’s treatment of Grealish. ‘The hair length? I don’t know what’s wrong but something’s happened… there’s a jealousy, or the £100m price tag and they’re saying “why wasn’t it me?”‘
It is perhaps telling that one of only two straight red cards Savic has received in his career came against another Premier League team, Chelsea, in the round of 16 last season. His elbow on Antonio Rudiger was blatant – and stupid in the era of VAR – and came late on with defeat again looking inevitable.
Savic was sent off in Champions League last season for elbowing Chelsea’s Antonio Rudiger
The only other straight red card of his career came for elbowing Antonio Cassani in 2015
It was Savic’s elbow that earned him the first red card of his career, with Parma maverick Antonio Cassano the victim in January 2015 when he was playing for Fiorentina. He appears to have an issue with flamboyant players and Premier League ones – watch out if you’re both, like Grealish.
The rest of Savic’s career has been relatively ‘serene’ – as L’Equipe described his ‘man of the match’ performance on Wednesday night. Four of his six career red cards have arrived via second yellows playing for Atletico and did not involve serious foul play, while he is usually a calm presence on the pitch.
He had just been waiting for his revenge on City for 10 years. Unfortunately for Savic, he couldn’t get it on the scoresheet so had to revert to violence. Grealish and Co won’t mind at all.