The contest between Atalanta and Liverpool in Bergamo on Tuesday evening was expected as a sort of spectacle, with the Serie A side showing some thrilling football over the last two seasons and Liverpool topping off the 2019 Champions League triumph with the Premier League title this year, and even though the game was certainly exciting, the uncertainty over who would win it vanished pretty quickly. Three goals from Diogo Jota and a strike apiece by Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane meant that the visitors had the three points safely in their bags on their way back to England.
What about Jota?
Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp decided to leave Roberto Firmino on the bench for this game and put Diogo Jota into his line-up. Perhaps it was the relatively poor recent form of the Brazilian which impacted his choice, though it could be that he was looking ahead to the Manchester City clash in the Premier League on Sunday and wanted to give at least one of his brilliant forwards some rest.
Be that as it may, Jota slotted in alongside Salah and Mane and delivered big time. The former Wolverhampton Wanderers player displayed pace, power, intelligence, technique and finishing ability in a perfectly blended mixture. His opening two goals, both superbly taken, completely broke Atalanta and put the game beyond their reach by minute 33. It was only fitting that the Portuguese, undoubtedly the Man of the Match, should round the evening off by adding the final goal of the evening as well.
Jota now has seven goals for Liverpool in 10 appearances in all competitions, and Klopp will have a tough decision to make ahead of the Etihad trip. Firmino has indeed been a vital part of the German’s system for years now and he is very difficult to play against even on poor form. His tendency to drop deeper and help in linking the lines up is still very important, especially against high-quality opposition, but Klopp now has to figure out whether that, coupled with Firmino’s contributions in the past, is worth putting the obvious attacking potency of Jota on hold for the time being.
Once again, Liverpool’s defensive injury troubles and lack of senior centre-back options were expected to prove costly for the Premier League champions, but 19-year-old Rhys Williams put in another excellent performance alongside Joe Gomez. The more experienced Joel Matip was back in full training, but it seems Klopp was not too keen to risk another setback with the City clash to come, so he put the Cameroonian on the bench.
Nathaniel Phillips, 23, was the one to get the chance against West Ham United on Saturday, being ineligible for Champions League matches, and he did really well. Now Williams was the one the slot in, and he was excellent too. Nothing spectacular, but very responsible, positionally aware and determined, without a single mistake. From having no options at all, Klopp now has the luxury of alternating these fine young defenders between the two competitions, and with Joel Matip yet to make a full comeback.
The rise of the two young centre-backs is just one aspect of the way the depth of the Liverpool squad has increased. Towards the end of the match, Neco Williams and Kostas Tsimikas were the players covering their flanks in the place of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, respectively. We’ve already discussed Jota’s impact; Xherdan Shaqiri has also been knocking on the door with some fantastic contributions off the bench as well.
It’s going to be a long season, but at the moment, it seems the Reds are well equipped to deal with the long absence of one of the best defenders in the world in Virgil van Dijk and Firmino’s poor form, while midfielder Thiago Alcantara is also expected back from injury very soon.
Too little, too late from Atalanta
If you’ve been watching Atalanta play over the last two seasons, you are probably aware that what happened in this game is not a true reflection of the quality of the team put together by Gian Piero Gasperini. They are good, usually entertaining to watch with a very attacking brand of football they play. It just seems that they approached this particular game in a rather naive manner. They tried to play their usual game, but that left them far too exposed against an opponent with a well-documented ability to identify and exploit any gaps and pockets of space.
Atalanta’s lines were too far apart for large portions of the match, and the more experienced part of Klopp’s team – Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum, Mane, Salah – were very clever with the way they made use of the space between them, whether to organize play from deep or to move in search of a final pass. What’s more, players within single lines often allowed passing channels to be created between them, which enabled their opponents to make the most of the attacking quality they possess.
It should also be said that Atalanta did create a few dangerous situations at the other end as well. Duvan Zapata and Luis Muriel are formidable strikers and they did cause some trouble for Gomez and Williams on several occasions, though they rarely combined to do something together. But apart from the Liverpool defence which did its job very well, they also had a superb Alisson Becker standing between them and the goal.
The home team played a lot better after conceding the fifth goal, but that fact is in itself rather damning for Gasperini’s men. It was painfully too late for them to change anything from that point on. On the other hand, it is to be hoped, from a neutral point of view, that Atalanta have drawn experience and learned a valuable lesson in this match, and that their approach when these teams meet at Anfield in the next round will be significantly different.
Even so, if Atalanta earn anything at Anfield, it can only be considered a bonus as they strive to secure a place in the knockout stages. They did brilliantly against Midtjylland in the opening round before coming back from two goals down at home to snatch a point against Ajax, and it is against these opponents that they must be fully focused in their remaining games in Group D. Halfway through, they are in third place, level on four points with the Dutch side in second, and it seems that the race between them will be very tight.
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