On Tuesday afternoon there were, initially, all the markings of a typical Liverpool European away day. As partial sunshine painted Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, banners surrounded the statue of Philip III on a horse, draped from the balconies of the three-story residential buildings and decorating the chairs of restaurants in the square.
But at the Wanda Metropolitano, Jürgen Klopp’s men found themselves in an atypical situation. They were beaten, with their strengths bruised. You’d have to go back five months for the last defeat suffered by Liverpool’s first-team – the 5-0 Carabao Cup exit at Aston Villa was played by the kids – away to Napoli.
When it seemed they’d completely forgotten how to lose, Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid supplied an unwelcome reminder in trademark fashion.
The Merseysiders were rattled early and a usually solid defensive unit succumbed to the first corner of the game, with Saul reacting quickest to Koke’s corner from the right, which shanked off Fabinho’s shin.
Only four minutes were on the clock and Atleti were 1-0 up in the opening leg of the Champions League last-16 tussle.
The worst opponents to concede early to, and as Klopp outlined, the one against whom you have to be at your absolute best at all times because they give no presents.”
The last time Liverpool’s seniors were behind in a game was 83 days ago – Napoli again the architects of that in a 1-1 draw at Anfield.
They are rarely breached from deadball situations and are skilled at turning corners against them into springboards for breaks.
The European Champions weren’t just a goal down, but they were being troubled by counters too. Worse, they ended the opening 45 minutes with 75% possession but zero shots on target.
While it was an unfamiliar position for Liverpool to be in at the interval, Atleti’s approach was so predictable that Klopp sketched it out in his pre-match press conference.
“The moment you are not 100% concentrated, they close you down with two or three players and then counter-attack,” he noted.
“If you are not focused and concentrated in your own offensive play, you will not even have a shot on target because they close the centre so good.”
Liverpool, deadly from corners, were duff here. They failed to exploit an Atleti side in transition that have admitted a weakness in defending them.
The hosts, too, were crafty in drawing fouls so much so that Sadio Mane, who was booked for catching Sime Vrsaljko around the head with an arm while contesting for the ball, was removed at half-time.
There was fear that referee Szymon Marciniak, who Klopp was previously critical of in November 2018 for falling for Paris Saint-Germain’s playacting during a 2-1 defeat at Parc des Princes, would not need much to show the Senegal forward a second yellow card.
“I was a little afraid the opponent would go down even if Sadio took a deep breath,” Klopp said post-match. “I didn’t want that situation so that’s why I took him off.”
Divock Origi was introduced and Mohamed Salah was later withdrawn for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as the visiting manager tried to unsettle Atleti’s dogged organisation. Liverpool continued to have all the ball and work to do, but Jan Oblak remained untested.
England’s pacesetters ended the game without registering a shot on target and they are now winless in their last six away games against Spanish opposition in Europe.
Liverpool have to ensure the unfamiliar is restricted to a game in which they betrayed their exacting standards – especially in the final third – in the face of a vintage Atleti showing.