Liverpool 2-3 Atlético Madrid (2-4)
Liverpool exit Champions League as Simeone silences Anfield
Atlético Madrid arrived at the home of the Reds knowing that they were going to have to work hard to hold onto their slim lead, and hold on they did...just.
As the final whistle called time on another breathless European night at Anfield, the victorious manager took to the pitch to celebrate. He embraced his players; saluted his supporters and basked in a win against the odds after the tie had seemed to slip beyond his side’s grasp.
Atlético survive onslaught, and then punch back
Yet for once, that man was not Jürgen Klopp. During his time on Merseyside, the German had never previously tasted Champions League defeat at Anfield. He had reached a European final in three of his four seasons since taking over at the club, yet was last night eliminated at the first knock-out stage by an Atlético Madrid side who produced a performance as ruthlessly clinical as it was ruggedly disciplined.
It all appeared to be going Liverpool’s way after the first 45 minutes. They had pushed and prodded, and looked particularly dangerous down the right flank as Trent Alexander-Arnold, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Mohamed Salah overran visiting left-back Renan Lodi. A low, whipped cross from Alexander-Arnold narrowly evaded the outstretched toe of Roberto Firmino but it seemed only a matter of time before they made their mark.
And they did, the dynamic Oxlade-Chamberlain making a clever run in behind Saúl Ñíguez and, finding himself facing the corner flag, dug out an excellent cross that found Georginio Wijnaldum in space in the box. The Dutchman glanced his header into the far corner and the tie was level.
Liverpool’s 1-0 first half lead brought back memories of Barcelona, but they found themselves thwarted by the growing presence of Jan Oblak in the visitor’s goal. The Slovenian was making his 50th Champions League appearance and showed why he had recorded an astonishing 26 clean sheets in the previous 49. He smothered a sharp volley from Sadio Mané and tipped an Oxlade-Chamberlain drive wide of his right post, before seeing a back post header from Andy Robertson crash against his crossbar after some neat work from Salah.
Liverpool drove forward, looking to take the lead for the first time in the tie but were repeatedly stifled. A low diving save from Oblak was needed to deny Alexander-Arnold from distance and Robertson’s follow up was blocked by Kieran Trippier, the Englishman abroad looking as much a part of Atleti’s backline as anyone.
The home side seemed to realise that it would take something special to break the visitor’s resolve and their wide-men looked to take things into their own hands as the game approached extra-time. Mané twice fired ambitious bicycle kicks over the crossbar and a brilliant slaloming run from Salah saw the Egyptian skip past three defenders before drilling his shot over the crossbar.
In the final seconds of normal time Saúl Ñíguez thought he had won the tie as he planted a header past Adrian and Simeone charged onto the turf in celebration, before his joy was cut short by the linesman’s flag. The Argentinian retreated to his technical area amid jeers from the home crowd, but he would have his time.
Extra-time for Atlético
Predictably it was Liverpool who continued to make all the running and their persistence was rewarded just minutes into extra-time after a marauding run from Wijnaldum found Roberto Firmino in the middle. The Brazilian had struggled to make an impact throughout the game, but finished coolly after seeing his header bounce back off the far post.
Anfield was jubilant, but not for long. A minute after the restart, stand-in goalkeeper Adrian miskicked his clearance to the foot of Joao Félix who slipped the ball to Marcos Llorente in space on the edge of the box. The former Real Madrid man’s low shot found the bottom corner nicely, but would probably have been dealt with had the Liverpool stopper not lost his footing at a vital moment.
Atleti, after being behind for the first time in the tie, had struck back within 90 seconds and reverted to their favoured defensive form. But as the interval drew close, Álvaro Morata’s amble to the corner flag was interrupted when he saw Llorente in space in the middle. Taking a momentary break from his time-wasting objective, he found the Spaniard who arrowed the ball into the bottom corner.
Liverpool now needed two goals in fifteen minutes, a tough ask having taken over three hours to find their first two. Atleti were back in their comfort zone and seemed impervious to Anfield’s European magic as Divock Origi and Takumi Minamino were thrown on and Virgil van Dijk camped out in the visitor’s box. The crosses rained in and Liverpool’s attack swirled forward, but Simeone’s men weathered the storm.
They refused to budge and there was barely a Liverpool chance to speak of in that final period. The only clear sight of goal came at the other end as the impressive Llorente exchanged sharp passes with Morata on the half-way line to set the forward through on Adrian’s goal in the final seconds. The goalkeeper got his angles all wrong and the ex-Chelsea striker calmly slotted the ball inside the near post.
3-2 to Atlético on the night. 4-2 on aggregate. Game over.
The side currently sixth in a less-than-classic La Liga season had knocked out the runaway Premier League leaders after beating them home and away and Simeone’s impassioned celebrations spoke volumes of the scale of last night’s achievement. They had stifled one of the world’s most prominent attacking threats in one of football’s most intimidating arenas.
Responding to some post-match criticism from Klopp on his unashamedly defensive tactics, Simeone made no apologies. For him the ends always justify the means and the Atlético boss has again shown that his side can get results against the game’s elite.
“I respect his identity and the quality footballers they have,” said the Argentinian in the post-match press conference, his face appearing free from emotion for the first time of a whirlwind evening.
“We try to exploit deficiencies in the opponent. That's all we try to do. And we try to win.”
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