One of the best sides in the world, one of the best-organised and one of the best-motivated. That was Jürgen Klopp’s description of Atlético Madrid prior to his latest confrontation with Diego Simeone, but only one team merited those accolades at Anfield and it was not the tormented, ill-disciplined and soundly beaten champions of Spain.
Liverpool cruised to a 25th game unbeaten in all competitions and into the Champions League knockout phase with a fourth consecutive win in a group supposedly fraught with danger. No Liverpool team had won its opening four group matches before but early goals from Diogo Jota and Sadio Mané made this an unexpectedly comfortable night for Klopp’s men. It has been an unexpectedly comfortable passage for Liverpool, one entirely of their own superior making.
Atlético were reduced to shots from inside their own half before the end while Mohamed Salah tormented their defence and Virgil van Dijk took a pot-shot from 30 yards. They did so in the face of minimal resistance as Simeone’s side, reduced to 10 men when Felipe was dismissed for violent conduct after 37 minutes, resembled a pale imitation of the obstinate, dangerous foe that won here just prior to lockdown in March 2020.
“It has been an incredible group stage so far,” said Klopp. “It would have been much better if Bobby Firmino did not have to go off with a hamstring injury. I wouldn’t have expected this when I saw the draw and it is pretty special, but we have two games to go and we will try everything to win them as well.”
The spoils of victory for Klopp’s team improved before kick-off. Porto’s draw in Milan meant if Liverpool won they would not only qualify with two matches to spare but also win their group with uncharacteristic speed. As at the Wanda Metropolitano two weeks ago, they set about the task with immediate intent and ruthless efficiency.
Liverpool were two goals ahead inside 13 minutes in Madrid. Here that cushion came inside 21 as Atlético’s famed defensive organisation failed to legislate for Trent Alexander-Arnold’s piercing crosses. The Liverpool right-back’s distribution was excellent throughout. He engineered the opener when, receiving a return pass from Jordan Henderson, he sent a delivery bouncing behind two Atlético defenders for Jota to beat Jan Oblak with a diving header.
Jota was completely unmarked when he converted thanks to Felipe stopping in his tracks and allowing the cross to sail past. The central defender’s Anfield ordeal was under way. Mané was a clear target for Atlético’s wind-up merchants, his heels in particular, and gave some back to collect an early booking for a foul on Ángel Correa. He meted out a finer punishment when starting and finishing the move that doubled Liverpool’s advantage.
Receiving a flick inside from Kostas Tsimikas, selected in place of Andy Robertson, Mané shrugged off two Atlético players to release Henderson in space. A familiar routine unfolded. The Liverpool midfielder found Alexander-Arnold unmarked, the right-back drilled a low cross into the heart of the Atlético area, Felipe lost his man yet again and the man in question, Mané, applied a polished finish past Oblak.
Not content with trailing by two goals, Atlético replicated another feature of the teams’ previous meeting when going down to 10 men. Almost inevitably Felipe was the recipient, although he could argue he was harshly dismissed for what the Dutch referee Danny Makkelie deemed violent conduct when he felled Mané from behind as the Liverpool forward broke from an Atlético corner.
“He caught Sadio’s achilles and by the law that is a red card,” said Klopp, who withdrew the Senegal international at the interval so as not to risk a second yellow card. “I hated doing it more than you can imagine but you could see Atlético players going down and rolling around to try and equal the number of players.”
Without the suspended Antoine Griezmann or a partisan crowd behind them Atlético displayed none of the menace or fight that underpinned their initial recovery from two goals down in Madrid. Their anaemic display was epitomised by Liverpool’s “third” goal minutes after the restart. Joël Matip stepped out of central defence with the ball at his feet and two banks of sky-blue shirts backed off in unison. The unchallenged centre-half threaded a pass through the centre of Atlético’s midfield and defence for Jota to sweep a low finish under Oblak. Anfield’s celebrations were cut short by VAR’s detection of a marginal offside against the Portugal international.
VAR compensated the home crowd when it denied Luis Suárez a goal on his return to Anfield for a similar infringement. Suárez, his every touch jeered, scored with a half-volley that deflected off Matip and wrong-footed Alisson. Jose Maria Gimenez, however, was just offside when challenging for the header that teed up Suárez’s strike and Anfield revelled in their former striker’s final disappointment before being withdrawn. Simeone broke with habit at the end and, instead of sprinting down the tunnel, hung around to applaud and hug his players.
“Other teams could have fallen apart in the second half but we were calm and took responsibility,” the Atlético manager said. “We can turn this around.” Liverpool can now prioritise the Premier League until February.