Liverpool might be the best team in the world but they can be beaten. On Tuesday night they suffered just their third defeat of the season – with one of those coming against Aston Villa in the League Cup when they fielded a team of youngsters.
Nevertheless, Atletico Madrid defied their poor form this season to roll back the years and secure a 1-0 first-leg victory over the Reds in the last 16 of the Champions League.
Reds reined in by revitalized Atletico
Atletico have struggled to transition to a more offensive style under Diego Simeone following the rebuild last summer, even leading to speculation surrounding his future at a club whose modern success is tied to their inspirational manager.
On Tuesday night, it was vintage Atletico and vintage Simeone, coming together to put a stop to Liverpool’s relentless winning machine under Jürgen Klopp.
The early goal certainly helped the home side and their pragmatic approach. Just four minutes into the match, Fabinho’s unfortunate deflection in the penalty area from a corner arrived perfectly at the feet of Saúl Ñíguez, who stroked the ball past Alisson and into the net to give Atletico the perfect start and, ultimately, the victory.
No team is better than Atletico at executing a ‘you shall not pass’ gameplan, but many wondered if this current Atletico side were capable of producing a performance reminiscent of years gone past.
Yet they need not have worried. Spurred on by the wonderful atmosphere in the Wanda Metropolitano, Atletico held onto their lead, had chances to even stretch their advantage, and restricted Liverpool to just a few half-chances and no shots on target.
Only once previously under Klopp had the Reds failed to register a shot on target, emphasising Atletico’s defensive masterclass in front of their jubilant fans.
Liverpool again fall short away in Europe
While Simeone acted as both a conductor and tactician for Atletico, Liverpool’s return to the scene of their Champions League triumph last season proved to be a frustrating night.
The Reds struggled to find their best levels, from passes being just slightly off to poor decision-making at times and wayward delivery from the full-backs, particularly Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Liverpool still controlled the majority of the game and dominated possession, illustrating their presence in matches even when they are not at their best, but could not carve Atletico open, though Mohamed Salah and Jordan Henderson came close.
Atletico’s deep block and narrow 4-4-2 formation stifled Liverpool’s creativity, with Roberto Firmino unable to find space and Liverpool’s full-backs rarely allowed to find encouraging attacking positions.
Liverpool’s midfield coped well and allowed the Reds to maintain pressure on Atletico, particularly in the second half, but their primary role is not to supply goals and Naby Keïta’s presence was missed as the Reds fruitlessly chased an equaliser.
Liverpool experienced similar problems when their senior side lost their only other match this season away to Napoli in the group stages of the Champions League, and their away record in recent years in Europe does not make for encouraging reading. Napoli, Red Star Belgrade, Atletico Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Roma, Real Madrid and Barcelona are all strong sides but Liverpool do rely on their form at home to pull them through in the Champions League.
All roads lead to Anfield
However, if there is any home a team would want to rely on, to know they can always come through any match, any tie, regardless of the situation or scenario – it is Anfield.
The likes of Manchester City, PSG, Spartak Moscow, Roma and, most famously, Barcelona, have all fallen to the power of Anfield in the last two years.
In the Champions League under Klopp, Liverpool have overcome almost every challenge they have faced.
Any tricky positions in group stages have been ultimately negotiated, and any first-leg deficits have been overturned – some of these even away from Anfield, as Bayern Munich last year and Red Bull Salzburg this year will testify.
Nevertheless, as Atletico celebrated their first-leg win as if they had booked a place in the quarter-finals, Klopp and Andy Robertson stated the inevitable – Anfield awaits.