Atlético-Liverpool: Simeone faces race to get stars fit for Klopp test
The Atlético manager has seven key players struggling to make the Champions League opening leg at the Metropolitano against the holders.
Atlético’s 1-0 victory over Granada at the weekend eased some of the pressure on Diego Simeone but little to dispel fears among Rojiblanco fans that Liverpool will be perfectly capable of ending the Champions League last-16 tie between the sides in 90 minutes when Jürgen Klopp’s side visit on 18 February.
Klopp’s reigning European champions are unbeaten since 17 September when they suffered their only loss of the season to date, a 2-0 defeat away at Napoli in the opening game of their Champions League defence. Since then, it has been plain sailing for Liverpool, who have yet to lose in the Premier League and eventually qualified as group winners in Europe. Even their reserve side managed to keep the Reds in the FA Cup and the sensation is that the runaway Premier League leaders, who have a 22-point lead in the standings, are unstoppable this season – a theory that Simeone will be keen to put to the test.
Atlético’s success under the Argentinean has been built on the foundations of his defence, which remains largely intact this season. Simeone’s side and Liverpool have both conceded 15 league goals but the staggering inequality between the two is in goals scored: Klopp’s side have banged in 60 in the Premier League at an average of 2.4 goals a game. Atlético average just one goal a game and 16 of those came in just seven fixtures. Simeone’s side have failed to score in nine Liga matches this term, and have one in their last four.
So where does that leave Simeone in Europe? Relying on the most Simeone-like 180 minutes of his Atlético reign. First, he will have to get through a 90-minute onslaught similar to that endured by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, which left the Spaniard inviting reporters to admire his new clothes rather than Liverpool’s complete destruction of his Premier League champions. Secondly, he will need to conjure goals from somewhere. Against Granada, three youth players and Ivan Saponjic (62 minutes of action this season) occupied the bench while two wingers (Ángel Correa and Vitolo) occupied the striker’s slots in Simeone’s 4-4-2.
Atlético’s injury crisis has been well-documented and Simeone has a week to get these seven back to fitness.
The player most likely to trouble Liverpool’s recently impregnable backline is the combustible Costa, who doesn’t even need an empty room to start a fight. The Spain striker has been out since November with a herniated disc but is training with the squad and has an outside chance of making the Liverpool game.
The €126m forward has not had the impact expected at the Metropolitano with just four goals and two assists in 24 games, but on his day he can breach any defence and Atlético stand a much better chance with him fit. The Portuguese has missed the last two games with a muscle injury and will not be risked against Valencia at the weekend as he looks to make the squad for Liverpool.
The big incognito: Atlético’s top scorer this season and the focal point of the attack, he pulled a groin muscle against Real Madrid (coinciding with Atlético producing zero goal threat in the second half) but should be fit for Valencia. Whether Simeone will risk him is another matter.
Atlético’s balance has been affected by Trippier’s absence, with Lodi providing the only threat from deep on the left. After undergoing surgery on a groin issue he is out of the first leg and unlikely to be available for Anfield on 11 March, which is entirely Liverpool’s gain.
Simeone’s defensive linchpin and Atlético’s answer to Virgil van Dijk has been struggling with a muscle injury and missed the last four Liga games, of which Atleti won one. During his previous absence of eight games Atlético won twice and were knocked out of the cup by third-tier Cultural Leonesa. Absolutely vital to Simeone’s side, the Uruguayan is expected to return on Friday against Valencia.
Hardly a regular with just 10 appearances this season, the bench-warming Arias will nevertheless be welcomed back after a groin injury purely in case anything befalls Sime Vrsaljko.
A tendinitis has kept the Mexican out of the last two games and although he is hardly a key element of Simeone’s side, he has been playing fairly regularly and will mean one fewer youth player in the squad to face Liverpool. The midfielder should be back in training this week.
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