Football Features

“A fitting tribute to the Golden Boy” — Papu Gomez inspires Atalanta against threadbare Liverpool

By Ben Green

Published: 22:14, 25 November 2020

In a much-anticipated encounter at Anfield, Atalanta ran out 2-0 victors against Liverpool in the Champions League to shake up Group D.

The permutations were simple for Liverpool before kick-off: win and progress to the knockout rounds. However, Atalanta would have been champing at the bit to rectify the thrashing they endured in Bergamo in the reverse fixture, and they redeemed themselves to restore parity in Group D.

Goals from Josip Ilicic and Robin Gosens determined the tie in the second half, while Ajax also won their game against Midtjylland to add an extra element of intrigue to this group, with just two points separating all three sides heading into matchday five.

This match didn’t prove the spectacle many had hoped, but it was a fascinating showdown nonetheless. So, what did we learn?

1. Klopp’s 10th centre-back combination underpins severity of injury crisis

It has been a juggling act for Jurgen Klopp this season, with injuries plaguing his selection process and hampering the consistency of his squad. At the back it has been like a game of musical chairs with defenders taking turns to slot in when the inevitable strikes.

And tonight highlighted the sheer scale of Klopp’s quandary. Deploying a grab bag of youngsters and fringe players, with the odd superstar sprinkled in for good measure, the German coach deployed his 10th different centre-back combination of the season, with Joel Matip partnering 19-year-old Rhys Williams.

For the most part Liverpool defended resolutely; they were tight but not insuperable. In the first half Atalanta pressed and probed but found few clear-cut openings. Going forward the Reds were uncharacteristically passive and struggled to get a foothold in the centre of the pitch.

That was always going to put seismic pressure on the rearguard as the visitors upped the ante and asked further questions. Klopp’s unrecognisable and hotchpotch XI were always going to run into problems, and the Goddess duly sought their reward with a quick fire double.

This match marked Matip’s fourth different partner at the back in his four starts: in the Merseyside derby he lined up alongside Virgil van Dijk; against Man City, Joe Gomez had the honours; for the Leicester win at the weekend it was Fabinho; and now Williams.

Klopp has showcased his ‘tardigrades’ exploits this season as one of football’s most resilient and adaptable managers, but even he can’t be flawless with the injuries totting-up at such a level.

2. Divock Origi once again fails to take chance

With Liverpool’s treatment rooms resembling Tokyo’s famous Shibuya Crossing at the minute, Jurgen Klopp has had to consistently shuffle the pack this season, and one player many would have predicted to be a beneficiary of this enforced rotational policy is Divock Origi.

However, the Belgian has largely flattered to deceive when called upon, while his main competitor for a first-team berth beyond Klopp’s famed front three, Diogo Jota, has passed his test with distinction, scoring a hat-trick in the reverse fixture in Bergamo, while producing similar heroics domestically.

This evening Jota sat out, Mohamed Salah came in, and Origi was entrusted with spearheading the frontline alongside Liverpool’s two most potent attacking outlets: Salah and Sadio Mane. However, Origi was largely a spectator for the opening stanza and beyond, producing a limp performance almost diametrically at odds with the intensity and ferocity of Jota’s past few showings.

Only goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini (14) had less touches than Origi (18) in the first half, while he also failed to register a single touch in the opposition box. And that pattern took shape after the restart until Klopp put the Belgian out of his misery and withdrew him from proceedings in the 61st minute.

3. A fitting tribute to the Golden Boy

On Wednesday, 25 November 2020 football stood still and mourned the loss of a legend. Tributes were paid to Diego Armando Maradona just before kick-off at Anfield with a tangible minute’s silence.

And as football comes to terms with the loss of such a venerated figure, one of the greatest respects paid to Argentina’s Golden Boy was the performance of fellow countryman Papu Gomez, whose low-gravity gait and twinkle-toed brilliance mimicked the movement of Maradona in his heyday.

Gomez was a joy to watch. An elegant enganche gliding across the turf seldom losing possession and nearly always picking the right pass, with the right weight, timing and precision. It is a testament to Gomez’s sprightly exploits that he is still able to operate at such a world class level with his 33rd birthday fast approaching.

Atalanta have not been at their brilliant best this season, and while they were coming up against a threadbare Liverpool, this was a much more convincing display, even if the host’s goalmouth lived a charmed life in the first half. Atalanta were crisp in possession, and cut-throat when they needed to be.

But, it was Gomez who stole the show with a display of dribbling virtuosity. A fitting homage to one of the greatest players of all time.

4. Juve have a player on their hands… or do they?

Juventus loanee Cristian Romero was the standout defender for Atalanta tonight, and at just 22 the future is certainly bright for the Argentina-born centre-back. For a defender so young, his reading of the game, positional awareness and bite are extraordinary.

He stifled Liverpool in the first half when the Reds produced a rare foray up the pitch and did not buckle when Klopp introduced the cavalry on the hour mark. Few defenders walk away from Anfield with a gold star on their CV, but Romero produced a masterclass.

A clean sheet is a rare commodity on Merseyside, and it will come as no surprise to learn that Romero was not present in the reverse 5-0 hammering in Bergamo. He has fluidly come in this season and cemented a first-team berth despite Gasperini boasting a stable back three last campaign.

It was odd to see Jose Luis Palomino, Gasperini’s main defensive option, on the bench, but by the half time whistle, everyone knew why. Romero was simply superb and Juve would have been relishing his return to Turin when the season comes to a close, but for some reason they have included an option for Atalanta to buy in his loan clause. A no-brainer one for think for Gasperini.

5. The conductor in Klopp’s orchestra

Before the match much of the narrative was focused on Roberto Firmino, who netted his second goal of the season at the weekend and put in a stellar showing against Leicester. The Brazilian has come in for slight criticism owing to his lack of goals, but Klopp was quick to highlight his No. 9’s true role in the side.

“Bobby is a complete footballer,” Klopp said. “A football team is like an orchestra, you have different people for different instruments. Some of them are louder than others but they are all important for the rhythm. Bobby plays something like 12 instruments in our orchestra.”

Firmino’s role transcends his goalscoring ability. But while he is the multi-instrumentalist in Klopp’s orchestra, he’s not the only one. James Milner tonight marked his 50th appearance for Liverpool in European competition, becoming the 23rd player to hit such a milestone for the club.

And he was handed the captain’s armband, slotting in at centre-mid this evening, his third different position this term. Against Arsenal in the League Cup he played at left-back, against Leicester he skippered at right-back, and tonight he was the orator in midfield.

Atalanta may have bossed large spells of this contest, but Milner held his own at 34 and showed how indispensable he is to Klopp. In this period of injury concern for Liverpool, having a player as versatile, vocal and dynamic as Milner is a godsend.