When Marcos Llorente came off the bench in the 56th minute of Liverpool’s Champions League last-16 tie against Atletico Madrid last night those watching on barely noticed.
Despite play stopping and the fourth official’s board going up to facilitate his arrival, the Atletico midfielder practically snuck onto the Anfield pitch.
Diego Costa’s grumpy exit drew all the attention from his replacement, as the home fans jeered the former Chelsea pantomime villain. But while he could no longer impact the game, Costa was ultimately to have the last laugh after a staggering 120 minutes that sent the holders out 4-2 on aggregate.
Llorente’s arrival was not supposed to be significant. Diego Simeone had summoned the 25-year-old to solve a defensive problem, not add attacking options. Llorente slotted in at right-midfield and was tasked with tracking Andy Robertson, allowing Angel Correa to move up front alongside Joao Felix.
In the end his defensive effort was of little consequence, because the away side held out for long enough to bring on extra time and spring the most breathtaking suckerpunch imaginable.
The celebrations from what felt like the telling blow from Roberto Firmino at the start of extra time lasted just three minutes before the unlikely assassin struck.
Adrian had been a spectator for the vast majority of the night, watching on as Liverpool hogged 71 per cent of the ball and peppered his opposite number’s goal with 34 shots – 11 of which required saving by Jan Oblak.
In the 97th minute Liverpool’s second-choice goalkeeper was suddenly a spectator no more as his worst nightmares materialised before his eyes. A scuffed kick went straight to Felix, who found Llorente on the edge of the box. The Spaniard’s shot was well-directed and Adrian’s slip proved costly.
It was 2-1 on the night, but finally Atleti had their precious away goal. And before Liverpool could even muster a response the game was over.
Atletico launched a counter-attack from the edge of their own box, Alvaro Morata found Llorente and the man of the moment skipped past Joe Gomez and Jordan Henderson to deliver the killer blow into the bottom corner.
Having pummelled their opponents for 90 minutes, Liverpool had now run out of puff. The coup de grace duly arrived to compound their misery, Llorente sending Morata through to beat the hapless Adrian at his near post at the death.
Simeone was down the touchline in a flash. Liverpool’s dreams of defending their Champions League title were ruined. An astonishing night of football was complete.
Oblak stands tall
Make no mistake though: this was no defensive masterclass. Atletico had been not just sporadically on the ropes, but desperately clinging onto the ring itself.
Liverpool could, and should, have been out of sight. Having been shut down almost completely in the first leg in Madrid, they dominated proceedings at Anfield, but only had Georginio Wijnaldum’s first-half header to show for it.
As expected, Oblak was outstanding in goal, keeping out efforts from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Mohamed Salah, Wijnaldum and Firmino, while Robertson also hit the crossbar with a header.
But in truth there were no superhuman saves from the Slovevian – he stopped shots you would expect a world-class goalkeeper to stop. The contrast could not have been more stark. Had Alisson been occupying the goal at the other end, the outcome might well have been different.
Blip or more?
Before the game the question was whether Liverpool’s poor recent run of form – defeats to nil by Atletico, Watford and Chelsea – constituted blips or something more serious. This game proved too haphazard to answer that query to satisfaction.
Had they been victorious Alexander-Arnold, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wijnaldum in particular would have been commended for their performances.
But then Simeone’s side have that often talked about but hard to quantify quality of character on their side. They weathered the storm, headed a torrent of crosses away, repelled waves of shots and made the most of their good fortune.
Liverpool were the architects of their own downfall and can have no complaints.