Liverpool may be runaway leaders domestically but their status as European champions is now hanging in the balance. Their hopes of becoming only the second side to retain the Champions League in the modern era and win a seventh European Cup were bruised by Saul Niguez’s early goal and damaged further by their failure to break down a defensively brilliant Atletico Madrid.
Ignore the mounting injury list, the 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.
Liverpool claimed three-quarters of possession but, remarkably, were not allowed a single shot on target. Atletico’s organisation and game intelligence was peerless and nearly matched by their constant threat on the counter-attack. If not for the wayward finishing and poor close control of Alvaro Morata and several others, Simeone would already be confident of reaching the quarter-finals.
For Liverpool, a one-goal defeat is not the worst possible result, of course, even if the lack of an away goal could prove especially harmful. Anfield’s mythology has been renewed, especially 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 much slimmer lead out of Simeone’s hands.
The decisive goal came after only four minutes and was the type of collective failing which has typically eluded Liverpool 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’s knockout stages than a goal down away to Atletico? At least, at that point, Liverpool had a minimum of 176 minutes to respond but managed only a handful of attempts on Jan Oblak’s goal during the remainder of the half and only a handful more after the break. Mohamed Salah went close twice, with a blocked shot inside the 18-yard-box and then a free header. Jordan Henderson volleyed wide. Otherwise, their efforts were speculative.
In that respect, this was 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 the last two-and-a-bit Champions League campaigns. Here, they found themselves up against the modern masters of that system.
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, while Liverpool may have suffered their first defeat of any substance since September, they 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 Atletico.