It was not the finest Liverpool performance yesterday as they failed to get a shot on target against Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their last-16 Champions League draw at Wanda Metropolitano Stadium. The former Champions League winners must now score at least two to go through at Anfield next month and defend their much-coveted title.
As of recent, Atletico Madrid have not played to their best. We have witnessed surprisingly clumsy football from the Spanish giants this season. However, in last night’s Champions League showdown, what we saw was a typical Atletico, defensive Simeone-led performance. They frustrated Liverpool, disrupted their rhythm, won 1-0 with an early strike and were happy with the result. If Atletico can mount a similar defensive performance in two weeks’ time at Anfield Stadium, then the world champions will be in trouble.
Can The Reds muster up the strength to overcome Atletico’s goalkeeper with such huge pedigree? Since the start of the 2013-14 season, Jan Oblak has kept 26 clean sheets in 49 Champions League fixtures. Liverpool failed to upset the sharp performance from Atletico Madrid which was both tenacious and disciplined. We saw some of the brilliance that Atletico Madrid demonstrated last season, displaying what they do best; defend deep and hit on the break.
Of Liverpool’s front three, Sadio Mane was taken off at half-time. Many suspected that the winger was suffering once again with hamstring issues. However, Jurgen Klopp has since revealed that he was concerned Mane would be targeted and receive a second yellow card. Mo Salah was also taken off on the 72-minute mark, having missed multiple opportunities throughout the game, whilst Jordan Henderson staggered off the pitch due to hamstring injury with just 10 minutes to go.
Despite the loss, Liverpool still remain confident about their Champions League journey. Virgil van Dijk said ‘we knew it would be a proper battle. We have 90 minutes to set it straight’, whilst Andy Robertson commented, ‘we gave them the best possible start. They got the fans behind them. They got under our skin. But we know we can be better.’
Jurgen Klopp praised Liverpool’s ‘exceptional’ press but admitted there were problems in the final third. ‘Their defence in the box was incredible’ but added, ‘we will take it like it is. It is only half time. It is not over yet.’
Liverpool have only really struggled twice in what’s been a fantastic season for the Premier League Champions elect and the Champions League Winners but maybe what’s more concerning for Jurgen Klopp is that on both occasions, it’s come against teams who have mastered the 4-4-2 formation in Napoli and Atletico Madrid. Most of Liverpool’s creativity stems from their full-backs and coming up against a flat midfield four means that oppositions have been able to track and screen a lot of what Liverpool’s full backs do. That then means that the midfield three that Klopp selects is key to how creative Liverpool can be. The midfield trio of Henderson, Wijnaldum and Fabinho offers a lot of legs and cover but not necessarily the creativity and drive to get into the half spaces behind the opposition defence and break the lines.
Atletico Madrid came at Liverpool from the off and The Reds did the worst thing possible; allowed them to get a goal after just 4 minutes. A corner slung over, Liverpool’s defenders were not decisive, didn’t deal with it, it pinged off Fabinho’s foot straight to Saul Niguez who slotted past Alisson. The luck certainly went the way of Atletico Madrid but it was a poor performance from a Liverpool perspective.
Full-backs Sime Vrsaljko and Renan Lodi were tight on Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold while the experienced Stefan Savic and Felipe dominated the middle. Indeed, they could have grabbed a second but failed to do so. Robertson, last defender and facing a potential two on one, managed to get it out for a corner. Then Alvaro Morata had a big chance but couldn’t make it count.
Liverpool had it in the net but Salah was a mile offside in the build-up. Otherwise restricted to pot-shots from 25 yards, Robertson well wide and a Fabinho effort high and mighty over the bar. Liverpool’s set pieces were woeful; not moving the ball around fast enough – very unlike the always offensive-minded Merseysiders.
The second half was more of the same – massive Liverpool possession, but ponderously put together attacks with Atletico Madrid trying to steal a second. Thankfully, they couldn’t because that would have put them in pole position but Liverpool have plenty to do.
Salah spurned the best opening when heading a beautiful Joe Gomez ball wide when he should have scored but then Morata slipped with the goal at his mercy, evening itself out.
Diego Costa, the villainous centre-forward, once of Chelsea, came on for Atletico Madrid, but managed to scuff well wide. Jurgen Klopp got a yellow card for going mad on the touchline as the referee failed to spot a blatant hand ball. Which pretty much said it all.