Emotions run high ahead of grudge match between Liverpool and Atletico Madrid

Managers Diego Simeone and Jurgen Klopp continue to give each other the cold shoulder

The so-called ‘hero of Anfield’, Marcos Llorente, will not be back there for the re-run of one of the great recent epics of the Champions League. Nor, alas, will the chief actors - Antoine Griezmann, James Milner and Naby Keita - from the latest edgy meeting of Atletico Madrid and Liverpool, in Spain two weeks ago.

But that doesn't mean the grudge-heavy, gripping mini-series that Liverpool versus Atletico has become has been tamed. The two chief combatants will be very present, making little eye contact with one another, and not shaking hands at the final whistle.

Diego Simeone and Jurgen Klopp are the two longest-serving head coaches in elite European club football. But the more they bump into each other, the less they seem to have in common, the smaller their shared understanding about the correct protocols of the job.

“I don’t give my opinions about how opposition teams play,” said Simeone ahead of Atletico’s trip to Merseyside. “I have a code, and among coaches we have to respect that.”

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No doubt about the target of that statement. Simeone was clearly referencing the remarks made by Klopp at the end of last month, when Liverpool won a see-saw group game 3-2 at Atletico. Klopp had posed himself a question in the pre-match press conference about what he thought of Atletico’s perceived defence-first approach and answered it candidly. “Do I like it? Not a lot,” he said, “but that's me. I like a different style of football."

Which was only a little softer than the embittered remarks the German manager made in March 2020, when Simeone’s Atletico went 2-0 down in extra-time of a last-16 second leg at Anfield, and ended up winning 3-2 against a Liverpool who had had 34 shots to Atletico’s 11 and held 71 per cent of possession. “I don’t know why Atletico don’t play proper football,” snapped Klopp, who has just marked the sixth anniversary of his joining Liverpool as manager.

Simeone, who will next month celebrate a decade in charge of Atletico, recalled those comments and the spikiness that has now become a feature of every meeting. He was obliged to point out that the reason he hadn’t shaken Klopp’s hand at the end of their latest five-goal to-and-fro was because he never shakes hands with his opposite number after the final whistle.

“I don’t like doing it after matches because I know the coaches’ emotions will be very different,” explained Simeone on Tuesday, adding, pointedly, “in England, they present it as chivalrous. I just don’t like being false.”

“We were both emotional,” acknowledged Klopp, as he reflected on the match in Madrid, which featured a 2-0 lead for Liverpool being whittled back, plus a red card for dangerous play for Griezmann, who had scored both Atletico goals, and then a penalty converted by Mohamed Salah to keep Liverpool on maximum points so far in the group. “But now I know he doesn’t like to do [handshakes] we can all go home happy. But between the handshakes, it’s an important game and I am more concerned about that.”

Klopp will be without the injured Keita, who scored a stunning goal in Madrid, and Milner, who was influential in Liverpool’s early control of that game, but believes fellow midfielders Fabinho and Thiago have made sufficient progress in their recoveries from injury to play some part if needed. A victory would confirm Liverpool’s place in the knockout phase.

Simeone, whose team are second in the group with six points, confronts a longer list of absences. Griezmann serves the first of his two matches of suspension just as he was coming into form for Atletico. Stefan Savic is also banned, for accumulated yellow cards.

Thomas Lemar is struggling for fitness, and has not travelled to Liverpool, and nor has Llorente, whose outstanding contribution to the comeback success the last time Atletico made this trip - Llorente, on as a substitute, scored twice in extra-time - had him dubbed the Hero of Anfield and kick-started his young career.

That was a night remembered not only for the startling turnaround, and the drama on the pitch, but as the last time a full crowd was at Anfield before the first Covid 19-driven lockdown. According to a preliminary UK government report into the handling of the pandemic, infections with the virus in the Liverpool area rose after that night. It concludes many lives were probably lost as a result of not closing the stadium to spectators.

“In the months since then, the world turned upside down,” reflected Klopp. “We had a sense something was happening to society, but not to that extent. It’s one game I never thought of as [just] a football game - a strange moment.”

Updated: November 3rd 2021, 5:38 AM
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