Football Features

“This was a true all-round performance”: Winners and losers as Saul fires Atletico Madrid to 1-0 win over Liverpool

By Chris Smith

Published: 21:59, 18 February 2020

On an intense night of Champions League football, Atletico Madrid gained a hard-earned 1-0 win over Liverpool in their round-of-16 first leg.

Los Colchoneros opened the scoring within four minutes through Saul Niguez and from there, put in a typical Diego Simeone performance to frustrate Jurgen Klopp’s reigning European champions.

So, who were the winners from this clash at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium?

Winner: Saul Niguez 

Another night, another massive goal for Saul Niguez. The Spaniard isn’t exactly what you’d call prolific, but he scores with enough regularity to make him a real weapon for Simeone, and he once again came up with the goods here.

Saul opened the scoring after just four minutes, chipping a finish over the onrushing Alisson having received the ball rather fortuitously from Fabinho – it was his fifth Champions League knockout phase goal for Atleti in total.

It was also his 10th strike in this competition overall and every single one of them has been an opening goals. When Simeone needs someone to step up, Saul is so often there.

But his brilliance wasn’t just confined to an early goal on Tuesday. By the time the final whistle was blown, Saul had made three tackles, completed two interceptions and won three aerial duels. Placed alongside a very healthy 85% pass completion rate, this was a true all-around performance.

Loser: Mohamed Salah

Massive credit must go to Atleti for their relentless work rate and the way they sat in and totally compressed the Wanda Metropolitano pitch to within an inch of its life on Tuesday. That undoubtedly had a huge effect on the performance of Mohamed Salah but, that being said, the Egyptian will still be livid at his own personal showing.

Salah was a shadow of his usual self, having just 36 touches of the ball, notching up a substandard 67% pass completion rate and looking completely isolated from the rest of his team.

Again, thanks to Atleti’s defensive solidity, chances were at a premium. But when they did come, Salah couldn’t deliver the goods as he so often does — his headed miss early in the second half from a wonderful Joe Gomez cross was symptomatic of his evening in Spain.

Vast improvements will be needed in the return leg if the reigning European champions are to continue the defence of their crown.

Winner: Diego Simeone

Often accused of sticking around at Atleti a little too long and becoming a victim of his own success, Simeone really, really needed this.

‘El Cholo’ was his usual, vibrant self on the touchline on Tuesday, barking orders and gesticulating with furious passion, but as much as this dugout soap opera was entertaining, it was his team’s efforts on the pitch which really caught the eye.

Atleti were as compact and organised as those classic Simeone sides of the past few years, showing tenacity in the challenge and posing a genuine threat to a nervous Liverpool defence every time they counter-attacked. So good they were that they even forced the odd mistake from Virgil van Dijk.

There’s obviously still a very difficult second leg at Anfield to navigate, and a long charge toward the end of the La Liga season to restore some pride and put more points on the board, but given Atleti’s troubles at times this campaign, this was a much-needed performance and result for Simeone.

Loser: Sadio Mane

Sadio Mane recovered from injury to grab Liverpool’s winning goal against Norwich at the weekend, continuing what has been a stellar season so far for the ex-Southampton forward. However, fears surrounding his fitness remained heading into Tuesday’s match and it wasn’t hard to see why.

Mane was completely ineffective during the opening 45 minutes in Madrid, failing to find any of the usual chemistry he often enjoys with Salah and Roberto Firmino.

Clearly not at 100%, Mane was then withdrawn at half-time, replaced by Divock Origi, and Klopp will now face an anxious wait over his fitness moving forward.

Winner: Thomas Partey

It wasn’t just Saul impressing in Atleti’s midfield on Tuesday night — Thomas Partey was absolutely outstanding from start to finish.

When you spend so much time out of possession, you’re bound to put some miles in on the pitch. Partey, however, took things to a whole new level against Liverpool, ending the match with six tackles — more than any other player on the pitch. For good measure, the Ghanian also won three aerial duels and was dribbled past just once during the entire match.

Sure, Partey’s passing was a little wasteful at times, but the sheer level of defensive work the 26-year-old got through was a comfortable caveat to that and just what his Atleti teammates needed on an incredibly testing night.

Loser: Jurgen Klopp

Given Liverpool’s powers of recovery when playing at Anfield, is a 1-0 loss away in the first leg really that bad? After all, they had no problems sweeping aside Barcelona in the second leg of last season’s semi-final.

It’s not so much the result that makes Klopp a loser here — he will be absolutely confident in his side’s ability to turn things around. It’s more the fitness issues that arose from the match which will trouble the German.

As mentioned, Mane was withdrawn at half-time, and things got even worse in the second half when captain and midfield general Jordan Henderson was also forced off, being replaced by James Milner.

The Premier League title is sewn up. But Liverpool want an unbeaten season, a double, a treble. Immortality. They don’t just ‘want’ that, they have a genuine chance at it. But the Reds cannot achieve any of it if their key players keep falling to injury.