Saúl’s early strike gives Atlético Madrid first-leg edge over disjointed Liverpool


Andy Hunter at the Estadio Metropolitano –  The Guardian

Saúl Ñíguez celebrates after his early goal for Atlético Madrid. Photograph: Pablo Morano/MB Media/Getty Images

Liverpool will not fear having to overturn a deficit against Spanish opposition at Anfield to stay in the Champions League. Indeed, they may thrive on the challenge that awaits on 11 March. But Jürgen Klopp and his players, for all their bullishness post-match, will know from this punishing experience not to expect another Barcelona against Atlético Madrid. The European champions tasted rare defeat due to the fight, resilience and menace in Diego Simeone’s side; qualities Barcelona lacked at Anfield last May and Atlético were supposed to have mislaid this season. But no, they remain a team in the image of their combative and formidable manager.

Saúl Ñíguez’s early goal condemned Liverpool to only their third defeat of the campaign (Aston Villa with kids in the Carabao Cup included) and maintained Atlético’s unbeaten record in knockout Champions League home games under Simeone.

Klopp was booked for remonstrating with the Polish referee over Atlético’s time-wasting tactics and ability to collapse under non-existent pressure. He admitted substituting Sadio Mané at half-time to avoid the red card his opponents were allegedly trying to get for the Senegal forward.

The Liverpool manager also spotted the throw-in that was wrongly awarded against his team before the corner that yielded Atlético’s winner. Inevitably, Klopp drew on the power of Anfield as the perfect cure for the Champions League holders.

But there was far more to defeat than Atlético dark arts or an errant throw-in. Liverpool started sluggishly and were relatively ineffective as an attacking force all night. They did not have one shot on target as Simeone’s team defended with character and intelligence while carrying a potent threat on the counterattack. A repeat at Anfield next month will demand a more considered response from Liverpool to preserve their hopes of a return to Istanbul.

Red flares greeted the Atlético bus on its arrival at the ground. “It enthused us,” said Simeone of the reception for his team. “Something beautiful woke up in us.” Red warning signs confronted Liverpool from the kick-off.

The European champions were put under immediate pressure by a positive, energised Atlético team that fed off the fervent support of their crowd and the muted response of their opponents. Liverpool were uncharacteristically slow off the mark and they were punished for it.

In the opening moments Ángel Correa slipped away from Andy Robertson on the Atlético right and the impressive Renan Lodi did likewise to Trent Alexander-Arnold on the left.

Dangerous crosses followed from both and, though Virgil van Dijk headed Lodi’s delivery away from Álvaro Morata, he conceded an avoidable corner when Atlético returned the ball into the Liverpool area.

Koke took it, Morata missed it, but the midfielder’s cross struck Fabinho on the shins and rolled perfectly for Saúl to convert beyond Alisson from close range. A lengthy VAR check threatened to spoil the wild celebrations but with Van Dijk playing Saúl onside, the goal stood.

An early, slender advantage was sufficient for Atlético to retreat and invite Liverpool to play round their compact 4-4-2 formation. The visitors’ composure and performance inevitably improved yet the home side continued to cut through Liverpool’s defence with ease.

Robertson had to produce an acrobatic and vital interception to prevent Morata converting at the back post after Lodi threaded a superb cross behind Liverpool’s central defenders. The former Chelsea striker was then released in space down the left and, having cut back inside Fabinho for a low angled shot, he was denied by the legs of Alisson.

Liverpool dominated possession as the first half progressed – they were allowed to – but were contained by a disciplined Atlético rearguard. The visitors’ first chance came from a miskick by Jan Oblak straight to Mohamed Salah. The Egypt forward exchanged passes with Roberto Firmino before scoring but the Brazilian was clearly offside when receiving the ball and the equaliser was disallowed.

Robertson shot wide from 20 yards with his right foot as Liverpool resorted to trying their luck from distance and, when Salah did find space inside the Atlético area, his drive was headed over by Felipe.

Mané, booked moments before the interval after a tussle with Sime Vrsaljko, failed to reappear for the second half as Klopp introduced Divock Origi into an arena he will always cherish. Simeone made an interval switch too, replacing Thomas Lemar with Marcos Llorente, and the Atlético substitute almost made an immediate impact when creating an excellent chance for Vrsaljko. The right-back was unmarked, Llorente’s assist was inviting, but the ball somehow squirmed under the defender’s foot and Liverpool were reprieved.

Salah was close to punishing the miss when he ghosted in between Vrsaljko and Stefan Savic to connect with an excellent Joe Gomez cross. He found power with a header but not accuracy and the effort flew wide of Oblak’s right-hand post.

Morata missed a better chance to extend the home side’s lead when teed up by Lodi. The striker was perfectly placed for the left-back’s cross but lost his footing as he shaped to shoot.

Jordan Henderson almost levelled with a late volley wide but Atlético’s victory was merited. It was celebrated wildly too although, as Klopp was quick to point out, this is not over. With Liverpool it never is.



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