Another memorable night at Anfield, but not for Liverpool…

Date published: Wednesday 11th March 2020 10:56

It was another of those memorable European nights at Anfield, but on this occasion, not for Liverpool. Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid side rocked up on Merseyside to spoil any party the defending European champions might have hoped for, and even gave Liverpool a sense of false hope that there may well have been one.

The spectre of an away goal haunted Liverpool throughout this second leg, and the first of two goals scored by Marcos Llorente in the first half of extra time may haunt Reds goalkeeper Adrian for some time.

Jürgen Klopp’s side were without one of their heroes of last season’s triumph, Brazilian stopper Alisson, who is widely considered the best in the world in his position. Atleti will contest that, and should Jan Oblak’s own heroics between the posts here lead to future success in this tournament, then he will stake his own claim for that individual honour. But here it was an individual mistake which was the problem.

Back-up goalkeepers are back-up for a reason, and Adrian isn’t too shabby as far as they go, but there is a reason Alisson is Liverpool’s number one, and also why there was a little more trepidation heading into such an important game without him guarding the net.

Atlético entered this game with something to hang onto. They banked the only goal of this tie in the first leg and had absolutely no intention of gambling or looking to double their money. If they were to do so it would be from a gift. A gift which Liverpool eventually gave.

The flow of the game was a continuation of the first leg in which Atleti scored within the first five minutes. 175 minutes plus added time of a goal in the bank and two banks of four, but Liverpool had more about them on home turf.

The away goal almost showed itself in the opening minutes. A deafening noise engulfed Anfield with the home fans reminding their opponents that they won last season’s tournament at their place. WE WON IT IN MADRID said one of the many banners which filled the Kop. But for one moment, as Joao Felix slotted a ball between Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez for Diego Costa to collect, hearts were in mouths. The Brazilian-turned-Spaniard hit his shot wide, and the noise returned.

Klopp got what he had asked for from an attentive but amplified Anfield, which turned up the volume further following a shot from Sadio Mane and a dangerous cross from Trent Alexander-Arnold which forced Oblak into action.

Perhaps unexpectedly, Liverpool showed more needle than Simeone’s side, with captain Jordan Henderson regularly involved, but as long as the score remained 1-0 in favour of the Spaniards, it meant little, and it meant even less come the final whistle.

Liverpool played some of the best football they have in some time and were buoyed by two excellent performances from their more advanced midfielders, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Georginio Wijnaldum.

There had been a sneak preview of the opening goal in the home side’s first meaningful attack of the game. Alexander-Arnold was moving into gaps down the right wherever Mohamed Salah and Oxlade-Chamberlain had left space, and on this occasion, he found himself in midfield. He sent in one of those crosses which have contributed to him becoming one of the most creative players in Europe from such positions. It was met by Wijnaldum, but it was easy for Oblak to make the first of his nine saves on the night.

Wijnaldum’s advances were a key part of Klopp’s plan and the next time such a cross came in, this time from Oxlade-Chamberlain, he found the back of the net with a header to restore parity for the first time in over two hours of football.

Liverpool needed to score one more but also knew another from Atlético would all but end the tie.

It was less of a defence of their crown from Liverpool, more an attack to keep hold of it. Oblak was busy, saving from Salah, Mane and Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose dangerous shots from distance were giving Atleti something else to think about beyond maintaining their two banks of four.

Costa was withdrawn by Simeone, much to the 31-year-old’s chagrin. His swipe in anger at a water bottle as he left the pitch was the most dangerous thing he had been involved in since that early chance. Llorente, the man who replaced him, would turn out to be the real difference-maker.

For Liverpool, the introduction of James Milner, who replaced Oxlade-Chamberlain, saw Salah move further forward, and he and Mane were trying everything to force the second goal. Some mesmerising dribbling inside from the right wing by Salah only resulted in a shot being fired into the Kop, and Mane attempted two overhead kicks which did the same.

The visitors were next to find the net, but Saúl had been offside for the entirety of the build-up to the set-piece which led to his header, despite referee Danny Makkelie having a word with him about his position prior to the kick being taken.

Extra-time brought football’s highs and lows for both sets of fans in one concentrated 15-minute period. Wijnaldum stormed magnificently down the right before crossing to Roberto Firmino. The striker hit the post with his first effort but was merely playing a one-two with the woodwork, tucking home the rebound. Anfield rose to its feet celebrating what looked like another comeback against Spanish opposition.

Just three minutes later, Adrian’s poor clearance fell to the feet of João Félix, and the Portuguese fed Llorente, who placed his shot around the still poorly positioned goalkeeper, leaving Liverpool with a mountain to climb. His second, following a break by fellow substitute Alvaro Morata, left them stranded at the bottom, and the third scored by Morata sent them home and out of the competition.

Simeone bellowed in front of his fans, who had experienced their own memorable night at Anfield, but it was one for Liverpool and Adrian to forget. The home fans who remained, their minds already turned to their team’s close proximity to a first league title in 30 years, applauded both teams off the pitch where Atleti remained with their fans for some time, savouring the moment.

James Nalton

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