Diego Simeone whipped the Wanda Metropolitano to a frenzy since the Rojiblancos defeated the Reds 1-0 in the first leg of the last-16 tie.
Commence Operation Anfield Exercise.
Liverpool have been here before. They’ll return to their famous old stadium, against Spanish opposition, looking to turn around a shortage and maintain their Champions League dreams alive.
The 12th man, they call it — and in three months’ time they’ll need it.
Atletico Madrid definitely had theirs . The Wanda Metropolitano Stadium holds amazing memories for Liverpudlians, but this time it was contrary to them, a bearpit desperate to find the European champions beaten and bloodied.
They arrived to shout and to sing and to boo and to whistle, the Atleti fans. They turned out in their thousands to welcome their team bus, turning the Madrid night a deep shade of crimson with their flares and their fireworks. “We began winning the match on the roundabout beside the scene,” smiled Diego Simeone. He called it the ideal atmosphere he had seen in his time at the club.
Simeone, of course, played the role of ringleader – circus-master, if you prefer – whipping his supporters into a frenzy with his nonstop energy and antics from the specialized area. He must burn some calories, the Argentine. His covered more space than a few of his players. “I am not sure he saw a lot of the match,” said Jurgen Klopp, his opposite number, later.
It was perhaps fitting that it should be Saul Niguez, the on-field embodiment of Simeone’s beliefs and desires, who played the role of matchwinner. The Spain midfielder’s fourth-minute goal settled this Champions League last 16 first leg, and means Liverpool will have to do it the hard way if they are to continue to the crown that they clinched here last June. Saul has scored 10 Champions League goals for Atletico, all of them openers. The Rojiblancos have never lost a match in which he’s scored and there were 37 now.
In the final whistle, the parties from the home side were rampant. There was a lap of honor from Simeone and his players. “A thank you,” said the supervisor.
Liverpool saw it differently. “They celebrated like they had won the tie,” said Andy Robertson. “It is not over yet,” cautioned Klopp, who added”all Atletico fans with a ticket….welcome to Anfield!”
This, however, was an unfamiliar feeling for Liverpool. They do not lose often, and they certainly do not enjoy the sensation. They are the team that constantly find a manner, but they did not here.
Klopp had cautioned his players what to expect. “A result’s machine,” he predicted Atleti on the eve of the tie. Simeone’s side, he said, “squeeze everything and give nothing”.
His words proved prophetic. Atletico, like the winner sluggers they’re, landed an early blow and then sat back and absorbed everything Liverpool threw at them. They’re a team that loves to shield, that prides itself on its durability and its organisation. They bark and they bite, they scrape and they run and they fall and they shout, and few teams do it better.
In 12 previous home Champions League knockout games under Simeone, they had surrendered just twice, and they extended their conduct here. Liverpool huffed and they puffed, but the house remained stable. Klopp’s team failed to muster one shot on goal throughout all of the 90 minutes – just the second time that has occurred in 251 games under his stewardship.
Liverpool’s rhythm was there at times. “I liked lots of things in our game,” Klopp said. There were spells when Atletico were pinned back, Liverpool tightening the screw bit by bit, but if it mattered there was no cutting edge.
Atletico, with Felipe and Stefan Savic imperious in centre-back and Renan Lodl looking like a celebrity in the making left-back, stood company each and every moment.
Liverpool were left frustrated, with themselves, with their opponents and with the officials. Sadio Mane lasted only 45 minutes, substituted at half time for fear of another yellow card from Szymon Marciniak, the Polish referee. “I was afraid the opponent [Sime Vrsajlko] goes down if he took a heavy breath,” moaned Klopp, who had been booked himself in the second half. “I deserved it,” he said. “I did not say any bad words I cried in his [the fourth official’s] direction.”
Mo Salah followed Mane off the area 18 minutes from time having led Liverpool’s best chance of the night wide. Captain Jordan Henderson left with a hamstring injury shortly after. He left the scene limping and will be evaluated at Melwood in another 24 hours. He must. At the very least, be a doubt for another league game, at home to West Ham on Monday night.
As with this tie, it remains very much in the balance. The harm done here isn’t irreparable for Klopp’s side, and anyone questioning their recovery capabilities clearly has too short a memory. Liverpool only require a glimmer of an opening, and they have a lot more than that.
They will, however, need everyone at their best in three weeks’ time. That means the manager, the players, as well as the fans.
Because if this game revealed anything, it is the power of an atmosphere.
Over to you, Anfield.