Sunday, December 5, 2021

Atletico Madrid 2-3 Liverpool: Five things as Reds edge out Atleti to maintain perfect Champions League record

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In a highly charged atmosphere at the Wanda Metropolitano, Liverpool beat Atletico Madrid by 2-3 in the third round of the Champions League matches in Group B. The Reds were two goals up after just 13 minutes, courtesy of a deflected Mohamed Salah shot from the edge of the box and a thunderous volley from Naby Keita, but the hosts bounced back quickly and Antoine Griezmann struck twice to level the score within the next 2o. The French forward was however, sent off in the 52nd for a high boot on Roberto Fimino, and Salah converted a 78th-minute penalty to grab the three points for the visitors.

The early Liverpool quality

Liverpool have started the season strongly. They are the only undefeated team in the Premier League at the moment, though they still trail Chelsea by a point in the table of the English top flight after eight rounds. In the Champions League, their campaign has been perfect, with three wins from three matches now as they previously beat AC Milan at home and FC Porto away.

Jurgen Klopp’s team entered this game with the obvious plan of taking control straight away, and it paid off pretty soon. Minute eight was passing when Salah cut inside from the right in his recognizable style and his low shot caught a deflection that took it into the bottom corner and out of reach for Jan Oblak in the Atletico goal. Just five minutes later, Keita pounced on a feeble clearance to fire past the Slovenian again; a fantastic strike indeed.

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What happened in that opening period of the match was a true testament to what happens when Liverpool are not properly countered. Atletico were never expected to have the majority of possession, but before that second goal, they struggled to link two passes together, never mind reach the opposition half.

The Atletico resilience

However, if there is one team that knows how to set up against Liverpool, it’s Atletico Madrid under Diego Simeone. The Rojiblancos responded to conceding twice in the best way imaginable, suddenly shifting gear as their forwards started displaying tremendous skill and ability to link up.

Their tendency to relinquish control of the game early on seemed to be producing results as they finally went forward to attack. It seemed to have put the Liverpool defence to sleep, most notably Virgil van Dijk (of all people), whose moment of unawareness gave Griezmann a chance to go one-on-one with Alisson Becker between his two goals, but the Brazilian goalkeeper proved his world-class status on that occasion. Alisson also did extremely well to deny Thomas Lemar, who was giving Trent Alexander-Arnold and Naby Keita a lot of trouble coming in from the left flank.

All in all, Atletico came back from two goals down within 20 minutes while squandering two fantastic chances, and the scoreline could have been far more favourable for them by halftime.

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The home team will have plenty to regret in terms of what happened after the break, most notably the reckless moment from Griezmann that saw him get his marching orders with almost 40 minutes left. Nonetheless, Atletico simply refused to bow down to the opposition superior in numbers, and they were an equal rival at least for the remainder of the game, even after Mario Hermoso brought down Diogo Jota and Salah from the spot set what turned out to be the final score. There were still 12 minutes of the 90 to go, and Atletico fought right down to the final whistle.

Speaking after the game, Simeone unsurprisingly expressed satisfaction with the way his team performed.

The controversies

There has been a lot of talk about the match-altering decisions referee Daniel Siebert made. Unsurprisingly, some of the British journalists who cover other Premier League teams for their respective employers were left unimpressed by the officiating, while Simeone himself refused to criticize the German’s work, believing Siebert to have called the situations as he saw them.

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Griezmann’s red card was the first moment that raised questions in that aspect. The Frenchman was looking upwards as he lifted his foot high to try and tame the ball, catching the side of Firmino’s face with his studs. There was certainly no malice intended – Griezmann is a known admirer of Liverpool’s No. 9. It was an unfortunate incident, but extremely reckless nonetheless, endangering the safety of the opposition player, and fully deserving of a red card. In fact, a similar situation happened to Liverpool’s Sadio Mane in 2017, when he caught Manchester City goalkeeper Ederson Moraes and got sent off directly too.

The penalty conceded by Hermoso is hard to explain. It didn’t seem that Jota was in a particularly dangerous position, but the Atletico defender never even went for the ball. Instead, he carefully watched the Portuguese, took aim and brought him down using excessive force. Hermoso himself is probably the only man on the planet who knows why he did what he did, but Siebert made the right call again.

And so it was on the third occasion, perhaps the most intriguing of them all. Minute 81 had just started when a free-kick was swung into the Liverpool box and a contact between Jota and Gimenez resulted in the Atletico centre-back going down. Siebert again blew his whistle, pointed to the spot and waited for the VAR to check the call. Instruction came for him to have another look at the situation on the pitch-side monitor and so he did. And when he turned back towards the players of the two teams, he signaled a change of decision, much to the dismay of the crowd, the Atletico manager and his players. Another call that ended up going Liverpool’s way.

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Looking at what happened, it seems there was slight contact between the two players, but Gimenez’s reaction was rather theatrical as he threw himself to the ground like he was hit with a brick. But once the referee gave the penalty, it didn’t seem likely he would overturn his own call, given that there was contact, however slight. Not many officials would, but he obviously mustered the courage to admit his mistake and corrected it.

Siebert should definitely be praised for not allowing the pressure the home team and the full stadium continuously put on his back, particularly after the Griezmann red card, to affect his performance. There was, for example, a moment in the 59th minute when James Milner earned a yellow card for a foul and the punishment already seemed a bit harsh from the outside, but the Atletico players surrounded the referee, obviously not satisfied and demanding a red.

But that’s nothing to be wondered at when it comes to Simeone’s Atletico, who as a team look like a reincarnation of their manager from his playing days – relentless, battle-hardened, strong , tactically disciplined to the last detail, not shying away from all kinds of tricks to gain advantage or nullify that of the opposition. They simply hate losing.

Salah the record breaker

Mohamed Salah broke two records in this game. He is now Liverpool’s top Champions League scorer in history with 31 goals in the elite competition, surpassing the legendary Steven Gerrard who stopped at 30.

The 29-year-old Egyptian also became the first player in the history of the Merseyside club to score in nine consecutive matches in all competitions. Meanwhile, his next goal in the Premier League will make him the top African scorer in the history of the English top fight. At the moment, he shares the top spot with Chelsea legend Didier Drogba on 104 goals.

There’s very little to say about Salah that hasn’t been said before. He’s been an incredible asset for Liverpool over the four years he’s been at the club and one of the main contributors to their vast success, and the fact that there is still no news about an agreement over a new contract is surprising. Surely, the club have to do whatever it takes to get the player, who will enter the final year of his deal in the summer while widely considered among the best in the world, to recommit his future and remain at Anfield for years to come.

The group situation

Following the results of the matches played on Tuesday (Porto triumphed 1-0 at home over AC Milan), Liverpool top Group B with nine points. Atletico are second with four, the same tally as Porto in third, though with a better goal-difference. It took Milan a long time to get back into the Champions League, but it seems it won’t take them long to leave it, at least for this season. They sit  in last place without a single point.

Atletico travel to Anfield for the rematch against Liverpool next, and a win there would likely prove enough for the Premier League side to finish top. But Atletico will certainly have ideas of their own in that match, and they’ve definitely proven that they can hurt Liverpool. A win for them would in turn make them likely to go through to the knockout stages, but at the moment, the most probable scenario is that the direct battle between them and Porto, set to take place in the final round on December 7th at the Estadio Dragao, will decide who continues the journey and who moves to the Europa League.

Milan could, of course, resurface as contenders for either spot over the next three rounds, but from what we’ve seen so far from the Rossoneri, it isn’t very likely.

Be that as it may, the hard-fought victory in Madrid will have given confidence to Liverpool ahead of their clash with arch-rivals Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday. Meanwhile, Atletico face La Liga leaders Real Sociedad at home, also on Sunday.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Veselin Trajkovic


Vesko is a football writer that likes to observe the game for what it is, focusing on teams, players and their roles, formations, tactics, rather than stats. He follows the English Premier League closely, Liverpool FC in particular. His articles have been published on seven different football blogs.

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