It took five months, but tonight Liverpool finally met their match.
Before the return to the Wanda Metropolitano – the scene of last season’s Champions League final triumph – Jurgen Klopp had talked up his opponents. Atletico Madrid were painted as a tough nut to crack.
The Liverpool manager’s prediction turned out to be spot on.
“They give no presents, absolutely no presents,” Klopp had said. “If you work as hard as possible, then you have a chance. If you don’t, then you don’t even have a chance.”
Liverpool worked hard in Madrid. They had 73 per cent possession. They moved the ball around. They probed. They threw crosses into the box.
But after 92 frustrating minutes they left the scene of their happiest memory in recent times on the receiving end of a 1-0 defeat, having been unable to even draw a save from home goalkeeper Jan Oblak.
If there is one side in world football you don’t want to go behind to early on, it is Atletico. But that is exactly what happened.
Diego Simeone’s side took the lead after just four minutes in fortuitous fashion when a corner struck Fabinho and dropped perfectly for Saul Niguez to tap in.
With an advantage to defend, Liverpool knew what to expect from Atletico. The hatches were well and truly battened down as the hosts made clear their intentions.
Look up ‘well drilled’ in the glossary of a footballing phrase book and you will find a citation relating to Atletico. Often in modern football the pre-match line-up graphic means little. Formations are fluid. Players are given licence to drift into space.
Simeone’s side, as ever, were billed as a 4-4-2 – and it was a textbook 4-4-2 Liverpool were tasked with breaking down.
Although not easy on the eye, Atleti carried out their game plan to a tee, defending the central zones while conceding space down the flanks.
For once, Liverpool simply didn’t have an answer as Simeone extended his unbeaten record in home Champions League knockout stage games to 13.
Klopp’s side are unique in having their most creative player at right-back. So much of Liverpool’s attacking play flows through Trent Alexander-Arnold, but tonight the 21-year-old had a rare off-day.
Alexander-Arnold’s set pieces frequently failed to clear the first man. His first touch was strangely awry and his crosses from open play were easily dealt with by the imposing wall of red and white stripes.
With Sadio Mane off the pace in the first half and Mohamed Salah uncharacteristically wasteful, spurning the away side’s best opening from a poor Oblak pass, the burden fell onto Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum.
The central midfield duo are excellent players, but are not used to taking such responsibility. The fact Liverpool failed to muster a single attempt on target was a reflection of Atleti’s defensive prowess but also Liverpool’s lack of ideas.
Pressing from the front
It wasn’t just the usually slick attacking play which was lacking either. Alvaro Morata and Angel Correa pressed relentlessly from the front for Atletico and on several occasions forced sloppy concessions of possession from Liverpool.
Despite having barely any of the ball, Atletico fashioned the game’s best chances. Alisson had to save from Morata’s low shot after a weak header from Van Dijk, while Renan Lodi’s crossing caused a few nervy moments too.
Discounting the 5-0 drubbing of their youth side by Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup, this was Liverpool’s first defeat since losing 2-0 to Napoli on 17 September – a run of 33 games in all competitions.
Klopp’s side have the Premier League all but sewn up and will back themselves to overcome Atletico done in the return leg at Anfield on 11 March.
However, with a lead to defend and no obligation to change tactics, Liverpool had better know what to expect.