They had come back from 3-0 down to win 4-3 at Anfield, they were the Champions League holders, they were unbeaten in the league, and above all – this was Anfield. Nothing could go wrong, the deficit from the away leg was only 1-0, they were prepared, they knew they had to score, but as fate had it, they were up against one of the world’s best defences – they were against Simeone’s Atletico Madrid. A side, known to defend as if their life depended upon it. But it was only one goal. Liverpool had tremendous momentum and all the goal scoring form they needed. But they weren’t prepared for Diego Simeone’s determination and tactical genius.
Simeone had never lost a Champions League knockout round to a team that didn’t have Ronaldo and he was keen to keep it that way.
The story so far:
These two teams met at the Wanda Metropolitano just 3 weeks before this fixture, in the first leg of the UCL RO16. An intense encounter, it ended 1-0 to the home side with Saúl Ñíguez scoring in the 4th minute after reacting to a fumble in the penalty box following a corner kick. That was all Atletico needed and they defended with all their strength throughout the game to make sure that they kept a clean sheet for their visit to Anfield. Morata even came close to scoring their second, missing a one on one in the 26th minute. Liverpool, despite having 73% of the ball couldn’t muster a shot on target the entire game, taking 8 shots in total. What Liverpool lacked that night was creativity, something they had shown a lot of this season. Liverpool had showcased their free-flowing football countless times this season, but they failed to produce it that night, thanks to Atletico’s brilliant defensive display. After 90 minutes, the game ended 1-0, and the Rojiblancos were happy with their well-deserved victory. In the press conference after the game, the Liverpool players were confident that at their fortress, Anfield, nothing could stop them from progressing. They had done it once against a Spanish opposition, they could do it again. But fate had other plans.
The day of reckoning:
The day was here and the stage was set, Anfield was ready for another night of Champions League football. Both the teams had their work cut out for them. Liverpool knew they had to attack with all their might, and Atletico knew they had to do what they do best – defend. Liverpool almost had the Premier League title in the bag, which meant they could focus 100% on this game. While on the other hand, Atletico were having a dismal season. They were 4th in the La Liga table after 24 matches, 13 points adrift of the league leaders Real Madrid. Liverpool were the favorites to progress, Atletico were the underdogs, but there was one thing that everyone forgot. The Rojiblancos thrived on being underdogs. They were at their absolute best when nothing was expected off of them. This game was going to be the classic attack vs defence, and the neutral fans knew that they were in for a treat.
Both the managers went with their usual formations and players, not risking anything to chance. Jurgen Klopp lined up Liverpool in their classic 4-3-3 formation with Adrian in goal following Allison’s injury, Robertson, Van Dijk, Joe Gomez and TAA at the back, Wijnaldum, Henderson, and Ox-Chamberlain in the middle and the classic, Salah, Mane, Firmino up front.
On the other hand, Diego Simeone went with his classic 4-4-2 formation with Jan Oblak in goal, Felipe, Lodi, Savic and Trippier at the back, Saul, Partey, Koke and Correa in the middle, and a 2 man strike partnership of João Félix and Diego Costa upfront.
With the 4 midfielders guarding the back four, Simeone had made it clear that he wanted Liverpool to come at them, and hitting Liverpool on the break was their strategy. Whereas with his classic trio upfront and with Ox in the midfield, Klopp had a clear vision of how he wanted to proceed with the game and that was to attack Atleti with everything they had.
A classic case of Defence vs Attack:
Liverpool were off to an electrifying start, they started to pounce upon the ball and used it well. Their build-up was quick and the number as well as frequency of crosses were extremely high. They were putting pressure on the Rojiblancos from all sides of the pitch. They were building up from the middle, crossing from the flanks and were all in to get that early goal and put this game into motion. Liverpool had some trouble moving the ball from the middle to the final third. Atletico’s two lines of four made it tough for them to work their way around the middle of the park. So Liverpool switched to an alternate strategy of putting in as many crosses as possible. But this required the players to get the ball to the flanks, and this is where Firmino came into play for Liverpool. As the Atleti center backs were not breaking their line to cover Firmino, he often dropped into the midfield alongside Wijnaldum and Ox to create a 3v2 with the Atletico’s central midfielders Partey and Koke. As the Atletico central midfielders were busy tracking runs of Firmino, this created a 2v1 on either flank for the Atleti defenders. As either Partey or Koke would track Firmino, Wijnaldum and Ox would partner up with Mane and Salah respectively to create 2v1s against Trippier and Lodi. And because Trippier and Lodi would get busy covering Mane and Salah, this would give Wijnaldum and Ox the chances to make runs into the empty spaces and get into crossing positions at the edge of the box. The combination of Salah, Ox, and TAA were making life very difficult for Atelti, as they were repeatedly exploiting this movement and getting in shots and crosses forcing Jan Oblak to make some brilliant saves. But this recurring tactic finally got to Atletico as Saul failed to mark Ox’s run as his run behind the full-back allowed him to put in a cross and Wijnaldum was able to reach the end of it and put the ball into the back of the net. 2 minutes to go for half time, and Liverpool were able to make the score equal on aggregate. The first half ended with Liverpool going 1-0 up. The stats of the first half were simply astonishing, Liverpool had 11 shots on target with 83% passing accuracy and 67% possession. The Reds put in 15 crosses and 5 out of those were put in by TAA alone.
As the game progressed into the second half, Atletico found a way to cope with this threat. Depending upon the flank, one out of Correa and Saul would drop in to cover for either Partey or Saul who were busy with Firmino. Atleti allowed Liverpool to have an extra free man on the wing, (usually the Liverpool fullback) to stop this central penetration. This meant that Atletico could only build-up from the flanks and that too if they switched the play fast enough as otherwise, the Reds would repeat the same thing on the other side. The wide midfielders were helping the central midfielders to keep a check on Wijnaldum and Ox. This constant grinding by Atletico against Liverpool took the game into extra time as the score remained 1-0 at the end of 90 minutes. The CB of Atleti and Oblak were in superb form throughout the 90 minutes as Oblak made 6 saves in the first 55 minutes and the center backs were always hyper-vigilant and up to the task whenever duty called. In extra time, Liverpool were able to create another chance and this time Firmino was lethal as he struck his shot well after his header hit the post and then luckily landed at his feet. This put Liverpool ahead in the tie for the first time in over 180 minutes. The Anfield faithful roared with joy as they believed they had done it again and they were on the path to the quarter finals and one step closer to retaining the Champions League, but a foolish mistake from the goalkeeper would take it all away from them. In the 96th minute Adrian, while trying to play out from the back made a loose pass straight into the path of Felix, who made a brilliant pass onto Llorente whose mid-range strike past Adrian stunned Anfield into silence. The man who had come on for a striker in the 56th minute to help Atletico see out the second half had put them equal on aggregate and in advantage due to the away goals rule. Horror settled upon the Kop as a new reality came to light, Atletico were winning on away goals, this might very well be the end of Liverpool’s dreams. This goal breathed new life into the Atleti players as they defended with even more passion and then in the added time of the first half of extra time, Atleti found a chance on the break, and some sheepish defending from Van Dijk, Henderson and Joe Gomez gave Llorente a chance to shoot from outside the box and boy did he take the chance well. The substitute had come on and made a difference. He had just scored 2 goals and put his side into an advantage Liverpool had little to no chance of coming back from. The tie was done, all the effort of the Liverpool players was outdone by two brilliant shots from range from Llorente. To apply salt on wounds, in the 120th minute Morata found another opportunity on the break, 1v1 against Adrian with the Liverpool players trying to chase him down, but all in vain as Morata subtly dispatched an effort past Adrian into the back of the net to make it Liverpool 2 – 3 Atletico Madrid. It was done, the tie was over and hearts were broken. The underdogs had prevailed. They had done it when all odds were stacked against them.
This game was a statistician’s delight. There were a total of 62 crosses in that match, the most in any game since the 16/17 season. Oblak made 9 saves, the most in this season’s Champions League.
Against all odds, the Rojiblancos beat the high flying Reds and it just goes to show that Simeone is a tactical genius and not as he is called by many, “someone who just parks the bus”. He showed the world how defensive football can be used to tame a fearsome opponent.