“The red storm arrives in Madrid” was the headline to Santiago Segurola’s column in El Pais on Tuesday morning. It turns out that Segurola is a really good columnist but a terrible weatherman. It was more like a red sun shower, and hardened by tougher days than this, Atlético Madrid stood up to the challenge presented by the reigning Champions League winners.
Atlético’s objective last year was to win the Champions League at the Wanda Metropolitano before Juventus crushed that specific dream. This was their final, nine months late and not really a final but it comes at a perfect time for an under-fire Diego Simeone. The win comes at a perfect time for a number of under-fire players, too. With a season hanging in the balance, there is hope now at least for another few weeks.
Simeone started Thomas Lemar because sometimes when there’s nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire. Atlético were heavy underdogs and Simeone sprinkled a little novelty into his 11 with a player he has openly admitted “hasn’t lived up to expectations.” The Frenchman wasn’t exceptional on the left but he freed Renan Lodi to counter on a number of occasions, and he was probably helped by the fact that the luggage carrying Trent Alexander-Arnold’s crossing boots got lost by the aircrew on the flight to Madrid.
Saúl scored after three minutes, but Liverpool can’t say they weren’t warned. Lodi had sent a cross in just moments earlier and Álvaro Morata missed the target with the gentlest of glancing headers. The corner was whipped in and bobbled around in the box before Saúl slotted home. It was his first Champions League goal of the season and while VAR double-checked, the assuredness with which he beat his chest made Atlético fans sure that they had taken the lead.
Correa got in behind just after that and while he was offside, Atlético were still causing problems. Excitement turned to trepidation when Liverpool finally found their feet and started to attack with some purpose. If the following 20 minutes was a boxing match, it would be Atlético with their hands covering their face just trying not to get knocked out.
Morata went close again and while Liverpool were landing some blows, Atlético would occasionally break out with danger. Mo Salah had Liverpool’s best chance when Roberto Firmino turned Koke, played it to Sadio Mané and he delivered to Salah. The Egyptian saw his shot blocked by Felipe, who once again did his best Diego Godin impression at the back for Atleti. It’s uncanny.
What happened next conditioned the game in the second half. Mané had been booked and was lucky not to be sent off. Jürgen Klopp took him off at half-time knowing this.
Salah went close as his header drifted by the post to open the second half. Jordan Henderson went close too in that second half, but this was an Atlético Madrid now with adrenaline running through their veins and with something to hang onto. A dog desperately holding onto a bone is the closest comparison — and Liverpool seemed to know it. Klopp, too. He took off Salah as Liverpool melted into a shape that consisted of Firmino and Divock Origi playing as two strikers, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain joining in and nothing really happening.
Atlético dug their heels in but there really wasn’t much need to. Klopp’s changes actually made the team worse, and their focus at the end looked like not falling any further behind.
There are stormier days ahead for Simeone’s men and a trip to Anfield is on the cards, not to mention a fight for fourth place in LaLiga. The odds remain against the Rojiblancos — but for one night at least, they can bask in the warmth of nostalgia when they returned to the force they once were, had the Wanda Metropolitano buzzing for the first time in a long time and will travel to England in a few weeks with a bit more respect on their names — and something very tangible to lose.