Football Features

Simeone gets it right at Anfield – Five things learned as Atletico dump Liverpool out of Champions League

By Steve Jennings

Published: 22:44, 11 March 2020

Atletico Madrid dumped Liverpool out of the Champions League after an extraordinary period of extra-time at Anfield.

Georginio Wijnaldum’s header put the hosts ahead in the first half of normal time. Despite a few scares, Diego Simeone’s side managed to force an additional 30 minutes with a typically solid defensive performance.

Liverpool led the tie for the first time straight after the restart when Roberto Firmino scored at the second attempt, but Marcos Lllorente stunned the Kop end with a quick-fire brace to send the champions out before Alvaro Morata added a third at the death.

Here are five things we learned on a wild night in Merseyside.

1. Simeone gets it right… just

Simeone’s tactics in the first leg – sitting deep after taking an early lead and getting by on professional fouls and time-wasting – were on full display once again for most of the second meeting. And now, with Atletico safely through to the quarter-finals after beating the reigning champions, that approach can be labelled justified… just.

Under Simeone’s stewardship, Atletico have built a remarkable defensive unit, a cross-clearing machine unafraid to invite pressure – because they know they can deal with it. This time they got by with a little bit of luck and a crucial individual performance (more on him below), but Simeone deserves credit for the belief he has instilled in this group.

In hindsight, the Argentine’s masterstroke was introducing Llorente in the 56th minute. Whether he can take the plaudits for the match-winner’s clinical edge is up for debate. That’s immaterial. One thing’s for certain: Simeone will be smiling when he wakes up tomorrow.

2. Gulf in goalkeeping class proves pivotal

Adrian has done a more than admirable job when called upon to deputise for Alisson this term. Thrown into the deep end more often than most reserve goalkeepers, the Spaniard has been almost error-free between the sticks all season – but sadly he saved a clanger for an occasion as big as this.

With Liverpool finally leading through Firmino’s goal, Adrian misplaced a clearance and Llorente eventually capitalised. What’s more, all three goals might have been stopped had Alisson been fit – they weren’t exactly powerful finishes.

Meanwhile, Jan Oblak showed his class at the opposite end of the pitch. He could do little about Liverpool’s goals and, frankly, for all of Simeone’s tactics, Oblak singlehandedly prevented his team from losing in normal time.

3. Wijnaldum is a big, big game player

If asked to rank Liverpool’s regular starters, Wijnaldum probably wouldn’t enter the top seven or eight on most lists. That speaks to the sheer amount of individual quality Jurgen Klopp has at his disposal, but it also suggests Wijnaldum’s contribution is difficult to define.

The Dutchman seems to play on the periphery of most games, providing quick bursts of value that often go unseen, lost in the speed of Liverpool’s rapid approach. But it is in the biggest of matches that Wijnaldum’s contribution becomes tangible.

As it did here when his superb header put the hosts ahead. It would have been a surprise if he hadn’t powered a similarly brilliant effort past Marc-Andre ter Stegen in the comeback against Barcelona last season.

It’s easy to forget Wijnaldum actually started that semi-final second leg on the bench; that wouldn’t happen now. The 29-year-old is a big, big game player – as further proven by his superb assist for Firmino’s goal – and he’ll be a key contributor if Liverpool are to have a better shot at the Champions League next season.

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4. Liverpool need one more superstar forward

It was a strange evening for Liverpool’s fearsome front three. As a unit, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah threatened to make things happened but couldn’t quite find the breakthrough until Firmino’s goal in extra-time.

While it might seem foolish to find faults in the make-up of such a successful squad, Liverpool’s depth in the forwards department has to be questioned on nights like this. Indeed, there is no debate that adding another forward of the calibre of Salah, Mane and Firmino into the mix would only make Liverpool better.

All three were responsible for moments of class and frustrating mistakes in possession. This can happen to the best of attackers when tasked with breaking down a deep-lying defence. But it could be argued that Klopp would have hooked one of them midway through the second half if he had a world-class alternative on the bench.

It will be an interesting summer. A move for RB Leipzgi’s Timo Werner has been mooted. And you have to wonder: if Premier League clubs do battle over Paulo Dybala’s signature again, will Liverpool enter the fray?

5. Simeone-Costa double act shows signs of wear

There were signs of things falling apart for Atletico in normal time, particularly when Diego Costa reacted badly to being substituted 10 minutes into the second half.

When on the pitch, Costa often mirrors his manager on the sidelines. They are both wind-up merchants, often more concerned with controlling off-the-ball matters than producing moments of quality in possession. Such personalities, though, have the potential to clash, and that’s what appears to be happening.

Costa ranted and moaned as he made his early walk to the bench, not even stopping to acknowledge his manager, who likewise ignored the striker. It’s a shame that the double-act is starting to show signs of wear, but it was perhaps inevitable.