Diego Simeone issued a spoiler for what was going to happen on Wednesday night at Anfield when he told the press on Tuesday that it would be business as usual for Atlético Madrid. Liverpool, they held up their side of the bargain, too — they attacked Atlético in waves from the start. Waves, plural. It’s never just a patch of pressure or a few really good attacks from Klopp’s side. It’s constant and, for some teams, unbearable.
Simeone did, however, mention a “Plan B” when asked what Atlético would do if their normal plan wasn’t working. The injured Alvaro Morata — ostensibly part of “Plan A” — was benched for Diego Costa after he suffered a hamstring twinge on Saturday against Sevilla. Aside from that, it was as expected from Simeone.
Klopp added Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in an effort to stretch the visitors both vertically and horizontally. That worked, as the attacking midfielder added a different dimension to Klopp’s midfield, one that was missing at the Wanda.
Atlético started quickest as João Félix found Costa with a feathery through ball into feet. He blazed wide. But aware of how subserviently they bowed out against Juventus last year at the same stage in Turin, Atlético did try to play football to start. Liverpool were relentless though and urged on by the irrepressible Sadio Mané.
Atlético worked a free-kick short to Thomas Partey, who plopped it onto Kieran Trippier’s flying right foot but he could only hit the side netting. Oblak, down the other end, had to rescue the rojiblancos with a succession of fine saves. Oxlade-Chamberlain was denied, as was Mané. Roberto Firmino was sent back to the drawing board too as the Slovenian morphed into an octopus in front of the full house on Anfield Road.
The goal Liverpool couldn’t find in Madrid was coming though, and it came at a horrible time for Atlético. In the 43rd minute, Oxlade-Chamberlain made a beeline behind Renan Lodi, picked up the ball and found Gini Wijnaldum, who headed down and out of reach of Oblak’s tentacles.
It was as if Klopp had planned it this way, the attacks a cascading glissandi, growing into a deafening crescendo just as Atlético could see the first half finish line. Simeone had been reminded time and again of the failure against Juventus in the build-up to the game. But to look back and claim failure means you had goals, and hanging on for dear life isn’t a goal. The same thing was happening at Anfield. History was repeating itself.
As the rain continued to fall in Liverpool, the ball looked like it had been coated with vaseline. And as players slid their way through the second half, the rojiblancos’ grip on the tie started to slip too. The visitors tried to show some gumption to start the second 45 but their passing was wayward, their positioning off, their nerves prominent. Liverpool had the leveller, breaking Atlético’s 113 minute resistance and convincing themselves in the process that it wasn’t some sort of black magic Atlético were using to keep them at bay. They were calm — at least, as calm as a Klopp team can be, exhibiting a twitchy sort of tranquility as if they were holding themselves back. There would be more red waves to come.
Costa was whipped off and kicked a water bottle on 55 minutes as Marcos Llorente replaced him — what we didn’t know at the time was that Plan B had been activated. Félix had Atlético’s first shot on target soon after, but it was routine for Adrián as he genuflected to pick it up. Felix shot again minutes later and Adrián had more work to do this time but parried and saved from Ángel Correa as he charged in for the rebound.
Mohamed Salah rounded two defenders and drove the ball across goal as Andy Robertson leaped in front to head the ball against the crossbar. Anfield rocked. They were getting closer.
Llorente had taken up a position to the right of an attacking three, and Correa went to midfield with Félix out on the right. There was a spell when Atlético looked like they had discovered their second wind, but it was because Liverpool were catching their breath.
Trent Alexander-Arnold slammed a shot low and hard, which forced a save from Oblak. Mané hit a lovely chilena over the bar. Salah did the same after dribbling by a flock of Atlético defenders. Mané again went close. There was a very distinct pattern to this game.
It looked like Atlético had disrupted that pattern and thrown the script out the window in the 92nd minute, when Saúl nodded home a free-kick from the left. He was two yards offside, as it turned out. The game would need extra-time, another 30 minutes for Liverpool to seal the deal and send Atlético packing. Or so we thought.
Wijnaldum was involved in the build-up for Liverpool’s second as Firmino headed down to Oblak before watching the Brazilian side-foot the rebound home on 94 minutes. Liverpool were getting their reward for a buccaneering display.
Liverpool were ahead in the tie, 2-1, and it looked like they had the job done. But Adrián, standing in for the injured Alisson, scuffed a clearance out to Félix. The Portuguese, who had been kept quiet over 97 minutes, found Llorente and he curled beyond an out-of-position Adrián.
After suffering for long and seemingly endless spells, Atlético had the goal that would put them through. Simeone celebrated prematurely on Saul’s offside header earlier but he kept calm this time. That particular mask was about to slip. Llorente, Atlético’s saviour, popped up to score again as all coronavirus precautions were thrown to the wayside. Simeone and the subs ran onto the field. Now, Liverpool needed two. Now, Liverpool needed a miracle.
The Reds tried but they had run their race, had shot their shot and fallen in the last 16. Morata scored on a breakaway in extra-time injury time, and the scoreline reflected a hammering. Atlético’s win came via an error and might not have been a fair result, but a club beaten in the two Champions League finals in extra-time and penalties won’t lose too much sleep over that. They still don’t have the elusive trophy in their hands but they moved to a quarterfinal on Wednesday night — and they suffered for it too.
After all, Simeone did tell us it would be just like we expected