Even before this tie kicked off, it was clear that something special was in the air at Estadio Wanda Metropolitano.
Beyond the smoke of flares which had been let off to welcome the team bus, there was a sense that a memorable night would lie ahead.
Fans gathered along Avenida de Arcentales to welcome the Atleti squad, chanting and lighting flares in numbers, with police battling to keep them off the road.
The outside of the ground was packed, this being only the second fixture with full capacity attendance at the Wanda Metropolitano since March 2020, and the first in Europe.
Liverpool were worthy of the occasion, and showed as much.
Before the game, Diego Simeone had called for a welcome to remember, recalling Liverpool’s last visit in 2020 by saying, “we started winning the game before even getting to the stadium.” The fans fulfilled their part of the bargain. The atmosphere both inside and outside the ground was electric, with everyone inside the stadium 10 minutes before kick-off to start the chants and songs.
Following that intimidating welcome in February 2020, it was Atlético who struck early on, Saúl’s goal on four minutes proving decisive. Liverpool have since been crowned Premier League champions and are a tougher, wiser opponent.
And it rocked the raucous Atlético support when Mohamed Salah struck after just eight minutes this time around. His shot, seemingly deflected in off James Milner, left the Atlético defence stranded. But their support were behind them. As visiting players circled around the Egyptian in celebration, chants of “Atleti, Atleti, Atleti,” rang around the Metropolitano. Atlético Madrid were not ready to give up yet.
“If you’ve come to watch the game, go elsewhere. We’ve come to leave our throats and lungs in support of this team,” one ultra shouted in the supporters’ section in the south stand.
There was optimism. There was hope. But it was short-lived.
Naby Keïta struck to double Liverpool’s lead, a seemingly-harmless sliced clearance away from danger from Geoffrey Kondogbia fell to his perfectly-measured volley which left Jan Oblak with no chance. The world’s best goalkeeper had been beaten by two unstoppable efforts in less than 15 minutes.
Now the hope did start to drain. Liverpool came back again. And again. Attacking into the most vocal part of the ground, each burst down the flank from Salah, running rings around Yannick Carrasco, led to a cross to Sadio Mané, who left Felipe behind with such ease that the Brazilian almost ended up in a different timezone.
Koke was fuming with rage. There were times were it was hard to tell if there was remnants of smoke still in the air or if it was steam being blown out of the Atlético captain’s ears, while Simeone was waving his arms on the touchline with such veracity that he could take off at any moment.
Back to basics, Atlético grew back into the game. The support picked up and confidence grew. Gaps started to open in the Liverpool defence, and at a corner with slack marking, Koke rifled a shot into the danger area for Antoine Griezmann to turn it home. Wild celebrations began.
But VAR was waiting. Bizarrely, that was just what the Colchoneros needed. A lengthy VAR check for offside, deciding whether or not Thomas Lemar was interfering with play, meant that Atleti fans in the stand celebrated the goal twice. The boost was twice as powerful. The mental hit for Liverpool was twice as hard too, and it showed.
Rodrigo De Paul showed the very best of his vision to play Griezmann in over the top, but Alisson Becker was equal to the effort. The next time, with much less space to manouevre, he wouldn’t need asking twice.
João Félix got the fans off their seat with some magnificent build-up work, and Griezmann’s turn and finish got them off their feet and jumping for joy. Simeone was off down the touchline, Oblak was running back toward his nearest stand in celebration, fans were jumping all over each other. The comeback was complete, and it was time to go again.
The atmosphere dialled up a notch, with chants of “Forza Atleti campeón” ringing out from all four stands, fuelled by Simeone’s helicopter-like arms which still had energy to burn off, even after his celebratory sprint.
As the half-time whistle blew, Atlético felt in control, and fans cheered their team off.
The Estadio Wanda Metropolitano had not seen a more disastrous 15-minute defensive display since its inauguration than that first quarter of an hour. Nor had it seen a side as remarkable as Liverpool dismantled with such ease as the following 30 minutes. The ovation at the break recognised that.
There was an air of tension as the second half got underway. Neither team wanted to cede ground first, and it took some electric runs from Carrasco to create a buzz.
That was until the two-goal hero Griezmann turned to villain.
As his foot soared higher and Roberto Firmino’s face came closer, there was almost a sense of watching in slow motion. The ball came down and everybody, other than the Frenchman, could see what was about to happen.
Referee Daniel Siebert brought out the red card. A second of silence. A second of astonishment. A second of being completely bewildered. Then the whistles started.
The card’s colour was a surprise, perhaps to be expected, but it felt harsh after the spectacle of football that Griezmann had led in the previous hour.
The tension in the air turned into the sharp sound of whistles directed in Siebert’s direction. Milner brought down Kieran Trippier, seeing yellow, with Atlético players crowding to stake their claim and Simeone getting a talking to in the process. Changes were coming, but Simeone and fitness coach Profe Ortega were more concerned with appealing every decision against Atleti. Ortega spent almost a full minute ranting at uninterested paramedics caught in the headlights over what he felt was a ball that had gone out of play just in front of them on the touchline.
Then it happened again. A second of silence. A second of astonishment. A second of being completely bewildered. Then the whistles started.
Inexplicably, Mario Hermoso had stumbled over into Diogo Jota, bringing him down in the box. Fans looked around for explanations, many confused having turned away with the ball in the air and seemingly going nowhere. But Siebert was clear, it was a penalty, and Salah didn’t hesitate to score at the same end as when he scored from 12 yards to win the Champions League final in 2019.
Atlético kept pushing, but their legs looked increasingly tired. An offensive onslaught of substitutions brought more hope than tentative impact, and as Atleti players began to go down with cramp after two weeks without a game, those in the stands began to ease off.
The hope was dying, with bursts of enthusiasm driven on by Simeone’s still-whirring arms.
Another penalty, another anxious wait, and the hope and dreams of 65,000 people were brought to an end as Siebert looked at the VAR screen and opted not to award a penalty, having initially called one as Jota returned the favour, barging over José María Giménez. The Uruguayan clashed with anyone and everyone who would listen to plead his innocence — much to Koke’s dislike, as he pushed him away from Siebert and the inevitable yellow card for dissent.
At that moment, the Rojiblancos’ hopes seemed to vanish into thin air. The dramatically-fitting end to this spectacle had been taken away, and Atleti’s moves forward became more frustrated. More long balls over the top for tired legs to chase after. Giménez even going up front in a last-gasp effort to make the ball stick in the final third. But even when it did, the moves just didn’t quite flow together with the same fluidity as the first half.
The chants started back up again after the final whistle, for this had been a difficult result for Atlético to take given their display. But it was one that they could take pride in. The team had fought until the very death under the toughest circumstances and against an elite rival. Atleti may not have walked away with anything to show for their defeat, but they showed they have what it takes to mix it with the very best.
As players trudged towards the centre circle to applaud the fans for one of the Metropolitano’s greatest European atmospheres, their heads began to lift. “Partido a partido,” is the mantra, and while the pain of this defeat would last for a little while longer, it was clear that all eyes were already set on Real Sociedad.