In the summer of 2016, bruised after the near-miss of a Champions League final defeat on penalties, Atletico Madrid unveiled a new recruit, a young Portuguese prospect. He was 20, and he promised the sort of attacking flair many observers thought Atletico were lacking.
Diogo Jota had arrived for a bargain €7 million ($8.13m), bought from modest Pacos Ferreira. He played in a couple of Atletico’s pre-season friendlies, scoring against the Italian club Crotone. But he was then sent out on loan, to Porto, to give him more guaranteed action. The next season Atletico again thought it better he mature elsewhere, and loaned him to Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The rest is history, and, the more Jota soars, the more it looks like an awkward tale of misjudgment by Atletico, who on Tuesday evening face the club where Jota is hitting the peaks that had been forecast for him since his teens. Atletico doubled their money when they sold him to Wolves after his successful loan year there. They then watched his value treble again when Liverpool signed him in the summer of 2020.
It is a tough ask for any striker to eke out a place in a Liverpool forward line that, via a Champions League title and a Premier League triumph, have become a symbol of potency and compatibility. But much as Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino are an emblematic trio, Jota has made himself more than simply their de luxe understudy.
His manager, Jurgen Klopp, has started Jota in all but two of Liverpool’s league and European matches this season; his only bad luck is to have missed the most recent, obliged to watch from the bench as Firmino netted a hat-trick at Watford on Saturday, Salah another sensational goal, Mane having opened the scoring. It complicates Klopp’s plans for who lines up in Madrid. “Three goals at the weekend will help Bobby [Firmino] a lot,” said Klopp of the form of his strikers.
Meanwhile, at Atletico, competition for places up front is keener than ever, and certainly more of a jostle than when a young Jota found the door there closed on him five years ago. An even younger and far more costly Portuguese, Joao Felix, has learned that. Fifteen months after joining Atletico for €125m, Felix is still an option, not quite an automatic pick.
Likewise Antoine Griezmann, who has scored more Atletico goals than anybody else under long-serving head coach Diego Simeone, but finds that his return to the club, after two patchy years at Barcelona, has not meant jumping straight to the front of the queue. The hierarchy has altered at Atletico, largely because of the 2020 capture of Luis Suarez, once of Liverpool, where at times he used to shoulder, alone, the responsibilities now shared by Salah, Mane, Firmino and Jota.
An Atletico squad that boasts Suarez, Griezmann, Felix, plus France World Cup-winner, Thomas Lemar, as well as the genial Angel Correa can hardly be labelled negative, although the reputation still shadows Simeone’s Atletico. And it sticks with them as far as Klopp is concerned.
“I couldn’t respect more what Atletico do,” said Klopp, adding, with barely a pause, the question he had anticipated, in the lead-up to Tuesday night. “Do I like it? Not a lot, but that's me. I like a different style of football."
There is a grudge here that dates back to the last, epic encounter between the clubs, 3-2 to Atletico after extra time at Anfield, in March 2020. It was the night that ended Liverpool’s hold on the Champions League trophy; it was a result that defied logic. Liverpool had 34 shots at goal in that second leg of a last-16 Champions League tie. By the 94th minute, Firmino had scored the two goals to erase Atletico’s 1-0 first leg lead. But by the final whistle, Atletico, under siege for almost two hours, had somehow snatched back three goals to win.
Atletico fight back to beat Liverpool - in pictures
Klopp derided Atletico’s men-behind-ball, retreat-and-counter tactics after the game, admitting he was a "bad loser". More than a year-and-a-half later, he sounded a little more generous, though without quite bringing himself to celebrate Atletico’s new riches in attack nor their freshly-won status as champions of Spain.
“Atletico play a different system, but they are still the results machine they were before,” said Klopp. “It's incredible how Diego keeps them all on their toes - no criticism of that."
No reaction either from Simeone to Klopp’s grumbles. Did Simeone have anything to say about Klopp’s criticism, he was asked yesterday. “Nothing,” replied Simeone. There are grudges to be settled in Madrid.