Liverpool’s Champions League title defence hanging in the balance after Atletico Madrid defeat

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Liverpool may be the reigning European champions and the runaway leaders domestically but, make no mistake, they are very much in a Champions League knockout tie. Their hopes of becoming only the second side to retain their title and win a seventh European Cup were bruised by Saul Niguez’s early goal and damaged further by their failure to break down a typically stubborn Atletico Madrid.

Ignore Atletico’s mounting injury list, their mediocre domestic campaign and the paltry scoring numbers. Ignore, too, all the talk of a team in transition. This is still the same Diego Simeone side, capable of defending a one-goal lead for 90 minutes without breaking sweat. Opportunities to play the underdog may only come by rarely at the Wanda Metropolitano these days, after all they have achieved, but they still relish in taking them.

A one-goal defeat is not the worst possible result for Liverpool, of course, even if the lack of an away goal could prove especially harmful. Anfield awaits next month and that famous old ground has taken on a new mythology in these parts, given what happened last May. But Jurgen Klopp may find that turning around a three-goal deficit against Barcelona is a trifling matter when compared to prising a slim lead out of Simeone’s hands.

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The decisive goal came after only four minutes and was the type of collective failing which Liverpool have typically avoided this season. Atletico’s significant early pressure resulted in a corner, swung from the right by Koke. The ball evaded every defender at the near post, bounced off Fabinho’s shins and towards Saul. Atletico’s underwhelming form has much to do with poor finishing but, four yards out and in space against an unset Alisson, he could not miss.

Is there a more inauspicious position to be in during the Champions League knockout stages than a goal down away to Atletico? At least Liverpool had a minimum of 176 minutes to respond. They dominated the remainder of the half, taking three-quarters of possession for themselves, but managed only a handful of attempts on Jan Oblak’s goal. Mohamed Salah’s rising hit from inside the 18-yard-box, blocked well by Felipe. Other than that, they were speculative.


Ratings: Atletico vs Liverpool





1/25 Atletico vs Liverpool: Player ratings

2/25 Atletico Madrid

3/25 Jan Oblak – 6

4/25 Sime Vrsaljko – 6

5/25 Stefan Savic – 7

6/25 Felipe – 7

7/25 Renan Lodi – 7

8/25 Koke – 7

9/25 Thomas Partey – 7

10/25 Saul – 8

11/25 Thomas Lemar – 6

12/25 Alvaro Morata – 6

13/25 Angel Correa – 7

14/25 Liverpool

15/25 Alisson – 6

16/25 Trent Alexander-Arnold – 7

17/25 Joe Gomez – 7

18/25 Virgil van Dijk – 6

19/25 Andrew Robertson – 6

20/25 Jordan Henderson – 6

21/25 Fabinho – 6

22/25 Georginio Wijnaldum – 6

23/25 Mohamed Salah – 5

24/25 Roberto Firmino – 7

25/25 Sadio Mane – 6

1/25 Atletico vs Liverpool: Player ratings

2/25 Atletico Madrid

3/25 Jan Oblak – 6

4/25 Sime Vrsaljko – 6

5/25 Stefan Savic – 7

6/25 Felipe – 7

7/25 Renan Lodi – 7

8/25 Koke – 7

9/25 Thomas Partey – 7

10/25 Saul – 8

11/25 Thomas Lemar – 6

12/25 Alvaro Morata – 6

13/25 Angel Correa – 7

14/25 Liverpool

15/25 Alisson – 6

16/25 Trent Alexander-Arnold – 7

17/25 Joe Gomez – 7

18/25 Virgil van Dijk – 6

19/25 Andrew Robertson – 6

20/25 Jordan Henderson – 6

21/25 Fabinho – 6

22/25 Georginio Wijnaldum – 6

23/25 Mohamed Salah – 5

24/25 Roberto Firmino – 7

25/25 Sadio Mane – 6

In that respect, this was beginning to resemble a vintage Simeone performance. All Liverpool’s rotations and manipulations of the ball were easy on the eye but fundamentally failing to distort Atletico’s shape. A humble two banks of four and deep-set defence has caused Klopp more problems than any other set-up during their last two-and-a-bit Champions League campaigns. Here, they found themselves up against the modern masters of the 4-4-2.

Atletico are not afraid to employ a different type of tactics, either. Their concerted efforts to get Sadio Mané sent off for a second bookable offence at the end of the first half played a part in Klopp’s decision to withdraw the Senegalese at the interval. But once play restarted, Atletico were still frustrating their guests and cutting through on the counter-attack. If anything, they had the better chances after the break.

Sime Vrsaljko and Alvaro Morata were guilty of missing gilt-edged opportunities. Both were grateful recipients of low, cut-back crosses. Both found themselves with room inside Liverpool’s penalty area, having evaded the attentions of a retreating defence. Both, to Simeone’s fury, scuffed their shots and tripped over their own feet. If either had taken those opportunities, Atletico would almost look comfortable.

Instead, Liverpool just need one to draw level and two to progress. It sounds so simple when put in those terms. But to watch their struggles in an increasingly crowded penalty area while the minutes wore on, as red and white shirts blocked every effort to work the ball into space, was to be reminded that nothing comes that easy against this Atletico.

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