The cussedness is what marks out Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, a solemn determination to wreck whatever it is the opposition do best, and so their manager will take that doctrine to Anfield in three weeks’ time to see if it works in a stadium famous for overturning the odds.
If this night was anything to forecast the second leg by, then one might expect Simeone’s team to defend the first row of car-parking spaces in Stanley Park when they find themselves under pressure. They struck early in this first leg, within four minutes, through home-grown Saul Niguez, a man for all seasons, although he can hardly deny that what Simeone prefers most of the time is the crushing of the game, its rhythms and most of what makes it watchable.
Jurgen Klopp, whose full-strength version of his European champions lost their first game since going down to Napoli in the group stage on Sept 17, did his best to be indifferent to the way in which Atletico had gone about it – and he almost managed it.
“I’m not sure Diego saw a lot of the game,” Klopp said, “because he was constantly animating the crowd.” The regulars at the Metropolitano, he concluded, were not buying their season tickets to watch “sensational football”, but rather it was the result that mattered.
By the end Klopp, whose progress over his side’s 17-game Premier League winning streak has been so serene that he has recently tried to find ways to praise opposing managers, was booked, a decision that he conceded was the correct one.
He had been shouting in the direction of the fourth official, “not bad words or swearing”, and could not hide his dismay at the manner in which the Polish referee Szymon Marciniak had officiated the game. There was a throw-in erroneously awarded to Atletico in the build-up to their goal, but it was more the treatment of Sadio Mane to which Klopp objected.
Listen to that roar 🤯— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) February 18, 2020
Saul Niguez gives Atletico the dream start with a goal inside four minutes!
They are well up for this! pic.twitter.com/vEF4UXgGiG
He felt no other option but to substitute his forward at half-time after Mane picked up a first-half booking for a collision with the full-back Sime Vrsaljko. Klopp said he was concerned that Mane taking “a deep breath” near one of his opponents might result in a second yellow card for his player.
By the end Klopp was at pains to remind all concerned that it would be a very different story at Anfield, where the kind of emotion that had powered Atletico in this victory will be behind his team. It has been rare that the Liverpool manager has been obliged to turn up the pressure on an opponent this season, unless it has been the toing and froing over FA Cup replays in the mid-season break, but there is no question that Liverpool’s defence of the Champions League is facing a rigorous test.
Against Barcelona in the semi-final second leg last year they faced an opponent who fancy themselves to win any game by means of control. Atletico have no interest in the ball for the vast majority of the time, the few seconds that they prefer to have possession is when the opposition slip out of shape and a chance presents itself.
But Liverpool must look at themselves too: this was only the second game in which they have failed to fire a shot on target in Klopp’s time in charge at the club, the only other being against Napoli in October 2018.
They had 73 per cent of the possession and Klopp felt that their build-up play was as good as ever, but it was the early goal that played havoc with their plan. Not since Raul Jimenez’s 51st-minute header for Wolverhampton Wanderers at Molineux on Jan 23 had a senior Liverpool side conceded and, prior to that, they had kept seven straight shutouts in all competitions.
This goal came before Klopp’s side had found their bearings against a home team who looked like they had been waiting for this game all season.
Atletico had won just one of their previous five games and yet they started like the side in form. An attack caught Liverpool on the back foot and the home team won a corner on the right side. Koke struck it into the centre and there was no decisive action from the Liverpool defenders, a deflection off Fabinho’s boot and Saul tidying up with the finish.
Within minutes the game was being slowed by Atletico in any way they could. Trent Alexander-Arnold appealed to the fourth official in vain for the ball boys to return the ball quicker. There were requests for treatment at the slightest collision. Around half-time, and already booked, Mane was involved in a challenge and the Atletico players crowded around referee Marciniak inquiring as to whether that was worth a second yellow.
From his spot on the touchline, Klopp looked across at Simeone, the subject of a relatively warm tribute of his the night before, and no doubt wondered how he had forgotten just how irritating the man they call El Cholo can be on nights like these.
Irritating, or inspirational, depending on how you view it: Simeone had Liverpool where he wanted them. The closest Liverpool came in the first half to the Atletico goal was when Mohamed Salah’s shot was deflected over by the Brazilian midfielder Felipe Augusto. Alvaro Morata had a couple of chances himself, the first before the break when Alisson Becker guessed correctly and blocked his shot after a mistake from Virgil van Dijk. In the second half the former Chelsea man simply fell over when the ball was cut back to him.
Diego Costa will be fully fit for the second leg on March 11 and came on for the closing stages to a great roar of approval. Jordan Henderson came off with a hamstring pull that Klopp hoped was not too serious. He will need them all if there is to be another comeback at Anfield.