Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Liverpool 2-0 Atletico Madrid: Five talking points as Merseysiders secure Champions League group top spot

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Having previously triumphed at the Wanda Metropolitano, Liverpool emerged victorious from their second clash with Atletico Madrid in the Champions League on Wednesday at Anfield and clinched the top spot in Group B with two matches to spare. Diogo Jota (13′) and Sadio Mane (21′)  scored for the home side, both unsurprisingly assisted by Trent Alexander-Arnold. Atletico defender Felipe picked up a straight red card after taking out Mane in the 36th minute.

The Atletico approach

It seemed early on that the La Liga champions had come to Liverpool to try and outplay the hosts as they came closer to Alisson Becker than Liverpool did to Jan Oblak, but that lasted only a few minutes before Liverpool took full control of the flow and pushed them back. It may seem harsh to say that Atletico didn’t actually come to play football at all, but from that point on, it certainly seemed that way for most of the match.

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Diego Simeone is widely considered as a manager who encourages his players to do whatever it takes to win games, and that approach has worked for his team in the past. This time, however, the Argentinian tactician went too far. He had obviously instructed his players to ‘play dirty’ whenever they felt there was something to be gained from that approach, and they combined hard fouls on one hand with frequent dives and play-acting on the other. There were occasions when they pulled off minor victories with it, like in the 15th minute when Angel Correa kicked Mane from behind and got the Liverpool forward to react aggressively and get booked for it, but they ended up paying a high price as referee Danny Makkelie started seeing through their antics. Felipe’s red card effectively ended the contest with more than half the match still to be played.

Interestingly enough, Correa played through the game without a booking, but Mario Hermoso, Luis Suarez, Koke and Joao Felix, not to mention Felipe, weren’t as lucky.

Mane was still relentlessly targeted, and the Rojiblancos tried very hard to force him into another violent reaction which would have certainly gotten him sent off as well, and Klopp eventually made a wise decision to replace him with Roberto Firmino at halftime.

Controversial moments

In that 36th minute, Atletico briefly got to the front foot and tried to create something in front of the Liverpool goal, but the Reds defended well and Mane was eventually off with the ball, looking to start one of the deadly counterattacks Klopp’s forwards are so well-known for. Felipe appeared to have tripped Mane in a desire to commit a tactical foul and Makkelie blew his whistle, calling the Atletico defender back with both cards in his hand. Felipe refused to return to the scene of the crime for a while, but the referee stood decisively firm. When he eventually came back expecting to get booked, the Brazilian was stunned to see the red card lifted towards him instead.

The decision caused a lot of speculation at first, with many believing it had come as a consequence of Felipe disobeying the official, but a closer look at the foul itself told a different story. Felipe had tripped Mane indeed, but he followed it up by stepping onto the back of the forward’s ankle. It was an offence worthy of the punishment, and no amount of complaints from the rest of the Atletico team, or from Simeone after the match, can change that. Atletico were two goals and a man down.

The two teams had a goal ruled out by VAR each in the second half. Less than three minutes after the break, Jota had broken through the Atletico defence, getting on the end of a clever pass from Joel Matip, and slotted past Oblak. However, it turned out the Portuguese attacker had been offside. Suarez appeared to have pulled a goal back for Atletico in the 57th minute as his shot caught a deflection off Matip and caught Alisson on the wrong foot, but Jose Gimenez, who had set the Uruguayan striker up for the shot, was offside as well.

There were a couple of calls, especially in the first half, which Makkelie appeared to have gotten wrong and it saved Atletico from more bookings, but the Dutch referee and his team got all the big ones correct.

Liverpool maturity

It has now been six years since Jurgen Klopp took charge at Liverpool. The club and their owners have been criticized at the end of practically every transfer window in recent years for what is usually perceived as lack of market activity, especially with the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea rarely refusing to pay whatever it takes to land their targets.

But Klopp obviously had a plan from the start. He has now replaced most of the squad he had inherited from Brendan Rodgers in 2015. He improved it gradually by building a core first, strengthening where it needed strengthening, and mostly shaping it from within with clever management. The result of this approach is that Liverpool have now reached the knockout stages of the Champions League for the sixth time in a row, and their vast experience in the competition is showing.

The Reds seem extremely capable of soaking up the wisdom that can sometimes come with heartbreak. What happened a year after that disastrous 2018 final in Kyiv was a very good example, as was their Premier League triumph a year after finishing a point behind Manchester City. Atletico Madrid have now become the latest episode in a series; having knocked Liverpool out in 2019-20 by the narrowest of margins, they’ve been beaten comprehensively. Twice.

Further more, the way Liverpool players resisted Atletico attempts at provocation throughout this match was admirable. Whatever Simeone and his men threw at them, they wouldn’t sink to the level of the visitors when it came to dramatic outbursts. They simply played on, winning through sheer quality rather than anything else, and staking a very serious claim to the most prestigious trophy in European club football again.

Others with that same ambition will be looking at Liverpool and thinking, this is the benchmark. This is the team to beat. And yet, no team has managed that this season so far. In any competition.

Changes made

Klopp is currently dealing with a shortage of midfielders. James Milner, Naby Keita and Harvey Elliott have all been sidelined through injuries, while Fabinho and Thiago Alcantara returned to team training just in time to be ready for Atletico.

It was the perfect moment for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to step up and show he can be counted upon, and so he did. The former Arsenal man lost his place in the team during his long absence through an ACL tear in the spring of 2018, and he hasn’t been quite the same player since. He’s been in and out of the squad this term, starting regularly only in the Carabao Cup. He’s been named in the lineup once in the Premier League, and this was his first Champions League start.

However, it’s fair to say he had a very good game.

Andy Robertson was obviously rested, looking on as Kostas Tsimikas took his place on the left side of defence. This is what the Greece international was signed for last year, and it seems he’s finally found his feet in this Liverpool setup.

Like Oxlade-Chamberlain, Tsimikas put in an excellent performance in this match, much like he did in the opening three matches of the Premier League season when Robertson was injured. He put in four crosses and as many key passes, won three aerial duels, had one successful tackle and one successful dribble, and completed 83.3% of his total of 48 passes.

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The group

With a maximum of 12 points from the four matches played, Liverpool will finish top of the group, that much is certain. However, a fierce battle seems to be on the cards when it comes to that second place, which also leads into the knockout stages.

In the other match on the night, AC Milan fought back from a goal down to earn their first point at San Siro against FC Porto, with an own-goal by Chancel Mbemba cancelling out Luis Diaz’s opener. The chances of the Rossoneri to finish second still look extremely slim; most likely it’ll come down to a battle between Atletico and Porto, who meet in the final round at the Estadio do Dragao on December 7th. Much will, of course, depend on Porto’s clash with Liverpool and Atletico’s with Milan two weeks before, when Porto will be hoping the Merseysiders are content with winning the group and planning to take it easy in the remaining fixtures, even though Klopp says that won’t be the case. Meanwhile, Atletico will be looking to end Milan’s hopes once and for all.

Porto are currently second with five points, Atletico are third with four.

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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