Atlético Madrid produce a night of magic against Liverpool at Anfield
Reputation and reality tantalised the senses at Anfield as Diego Simeone, Atletico and unlikely hero Marcos Llorente refused to be denied.
How on earth would Atlético Madrid stem the rolling relentless red wave without being swept away?
On the other hand, how would Liverpool break down the most stubborn opponents of this European era, who had shoved the hardest of all noses in front in this last-16 tie?
There was no need to mention that 19 of the Reds' wins in all competitions this season have come by a solitary goal. Or, for that matter, to note Atleti's solitary clean sheet in their past five matches came in the initial encounter.
This Herculean, knife-edge tie was one played out somewhere in the deceptive gap between reality and reputation. Whose bluff would hold, who would blink with it all on the line?
For all the thoughts Atlético would come and shut up shop, they arguably should have extended their overall lead after 15 seconds. Diego Costa, the pantomime villain moving with all the nimbleness of the back end of a pantomime horse, slung a shot into the side netting after being played onside by Virgil van Dijk.
There were some unusually uncertain moments from Liverpool's defensive talisman as the rain began to lash down unhelpfully on an encounter where any slip could be terminal to quarter-final prospects.
Costa glanced another presentable opportunity wide but it swiftly became clear Atlético's key man would be an obstructive presence of a different kind.
Jan Oblak's goalkeeping display was of the very highest standard as he racked up nine saves, some of which at close quarters were truly exceptional.
It was a time for Liverpool to chip painstakingly away against opponents bedded in for the long haul. The quickfire eviscerations of Roma and Manchester City in 2018 were never likely to be repeated.
But then came a recall from the most celebrated Anfield European night of them all. If it's a deficit against LaLiga opponents that needs wiping out, Georginio Wijnaldum is your man.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, enjoying his most productive Liverpool outing since thrashing in deliriously against City two years ago, sent a delicious cross arcing back towards the penalty spot.
Stefan Savic and Felipe acquitted themselves superbly throughout the tie, but it was tempting to wonder whether the departed Diego Godin would have allowed Wijnaldum – toast of the unforgettable Barcelona heist – to power emphatically home.
The Netherlands midfielder was there again with a wonderful centre of his own for Roberto Firmino to finally edge the hosts in front during extra time. By that stage, Wijnaldum's goal felt like it belonged to another age. Bubbling, belching tension turned minutes into days before Saúl Ñiguez's disallowed stoppage-time goal seemed to stop time altogether.
Sadio Mane had sought the movie action hero ending with a pair of overhead kicks but Firmino seemed to have landed the knockout blow. It looked like he was their Rocky, only for Adrian to cough up the decisive plot twist.
If Oblak's display was that of a goalkeeping grand master, Adrian looked every inch the number two, the bumbling apprentice. His scuffed, unnecessarily panicked clearance found a cool Joao Felix surveying the whole picture.
The Portuguese youngster, a child when the reputations being traded upon here were cast, slotted the ball to Marcos Llorente, who unerringly picked out the bottom corner.
"You'll Never Walk Alone," howled the Kop. And yet, Adrian could scarcely have appeared more solitary.
Audaciously, Atletico sprung from their robust shell once more, substitute Alvaro Morata this time assessing the scene. No one was thinking of Steven Gerrard against Olympiacos, Istanbul or anything from the Jurgen Klopp cannon. A new page to a different book was being written, with the unusually passive Van Dijk and Joe Gomez not daring to smear the wet ink.
Those chapters include Antoine Griezmann at the Allianz Arena and Chelsea collapsing at Stamford Bridge. The inimitable Diego Simeone the eloquent author of every one. Now, in Llorente – same crisp technique, same result, game over – he had his latest lead character to celebrate.
A fired-up Morata added a succinct footnote to another Anfield night of magic and memory, only this one will be eagerly told and retold in Madrid rather than Merseyside.
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