By Alan Feehely.
Atlético Madrid welcomed Liverpool to the Wanda Metropolitano on Tuesday evening in what promised to be a mouthwatering clash between two of the Champions League’s strongest sides. It didn’t disappoint.
Liverpool raced into a 2-0 lead inside the opening 13 minutes, and things looked ominous for Diego Simeone’s men. But they weren’t fazed in the slightest; they struck twice inside the next 21 minutes to make it 2-2 and get back on level terms.
The visitors, however, won it 12 minutes from time through a penalty kick; Atlético were then awarded their own only for the referee — with the help of VAR — to change his mind.
It was everything European football is meant to be. Played in the warm Madrid night before 60,725 passionately involved spectators, the game ebbed and flowed as two top teams traded blows and looked for ways of getting ahead.
It was a contrast in styles, with both teams representing the men that led them. Atlético are clearly built in Simeone’s image; they’re smart and tough, competitive to the hilt and precise in every action.
Liverpool, similarly, are the embodiment of Jürgen Klopp. Relentlessly positive, they play to win and boast one of the most formidable and frightening front threes in the European game.
But similarly, neither side are a caricature of themselves. There’s much more to Atlético than work rate and a knowledge of the dark arts. They’re an intelligent, functional team with real quality to draw upon to compliment their foundational competencies.
Liverpool have evolved from the heavy metal football that characterised their early development under Klopp, too. They know how to manage games.
Simeone set his team up in a 3-4-1-2 shape. Jan Oblak started in goal behind a back three of Felipe, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Mario Hermoso. Koke sat in the pivot, with Thomas Lemar and Rodrigo de Paul in front of him. Yannick Carrasco and Kieran Trippier provided width as wing-backs, while the dynamic duo of João Félix and Antoine Griezmann served as the spearhead of their attack.
Klopp went for his traditional 4-3-3. Alisson started in goal behind a back four of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joel Matip, Virgil van Dijk and Andy Robertson. Jordan Henderson was deployed in the centre of midfield, with Naby Keïta and James Milner either side of him. Roberto Firmino served as the focal point of attack, with Mohamed Salah — perhaps the most in-form player on earth right now — to his right and Sadio Mané to his left.
The game soon found a settled pattern. Liverpool dominated 68% of possession, while their ability to complete 88% of their passes bettered Atlético’s rate of just 73%. Liverpool could be characterised as probing and confident, aware of their ability on the ball as well as the threat they posed in their fleet-footed, lethal attacking trident. Atlético were ready to counter, cognizant of their ability to break the lines and hurt Liverpool on a quick break.
Liverpool took the lead in the eighth minute through Salah. The Egyptian came in off the right flank and danced through three separate challenges before letting rip from just outside the area, his shot beating Oblak after taking a deflection off Milner on the way.
— Liverpool FC USA (@LFCUSA) October 19, 2021
Their second came just five minutes later. This time Atlético failed to deal with a speculative hike toward their defence, allowing the ball to fall to Keïta at the edge of the box. The Guinean arrowed a sumptuous, spinning volley into the bottom right corner of the net and looked like he couldn’t believe what he’d done afterwards.
It took a period of just 14 minutes, however, for Griezmann to score a brace and get Atlético back on level terms. The Frenchman — still finding his feet after returning to Madrid following two years at Barcelona — got his first in a manner similar to Salah’s opener. Lemar arrowed a ball across goal to Koke, who took a shot from distance that took a substantial deflection off him to beat Alisson.
His second belonged to Félix as much as to him. The Portuguese — similarly still trying to find his feet at the Wanda Metropolitano two full seasons on from his big-money move from Benfica — picked up the ball on the touchline far left, shrugged off the challenge of Keïta and found Griezmann in a good position.
Griezmann then did well to turn, open his body and beat Alisson at the far post. Simeone — lean, mean and severely dressed in black as ever — celebrated in trademark, fist-pumping style.
Griezmann turned from hero to villain six minutes after the second-half got underway, however. He was trying to control a loose ball when his high foot collided with Firmino, leaving the referee no option but to issue a straight red and fundamentally alter the nature of the contest even though his eyes were clearly on the ball.
But Atlético responded well to going a goal down, remaining right in the game up until a fateful incident in the 78th minute when Hermoso clumsily leaned into substitute Diogo Jota, bringing him down inside the box and conceding a penalty. Salah stepped up and bloodlessly converted, going low, left and hard while sending Oblak the wrong way.
Atletico Madrid 2-3 Liverpool was the first time Atletico conceded 3+ goals in a home European game under Diego Simeone.
— Richard Jolly (@RichJolly) October 19, 2021
Atlético thought they had a penalty of their own when a similar incident happened at the other end between substitute José María Giménez and Jota, but there wasn’t the same contact or intention and the referee — after consulting VAR — rightfully chose not to give it.
Simeone sprinted down the tunnel after the game without stopping to shake Klopp’s hand, something many in the British media took as a sign of the ultimate disrespect. But, like many things about his Atlético, that was just another misunderstanding.
The Argentine does the same for every game — win, lose or draw — because there’s always another battle on the horizon.
For Atlético, that’s a date with current La Liga leaders Real Sociedad this coming Sunday, back at the Wanda Metropolitano. They’ll go into the game in the knowledge that they can compete toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in Europe.