Atletico under pressure for Milan battle as Liverpool become Group B kingmakers

Jurgen Klopp's team have reached Champions League knockout stage and their match against Porto could decide who joins them in next phase

Atletico Madrid versus Liverpool is the grudge that keeps giving. It’s the fixture where a missed handshake between respective managers can provoke a melodrama, where a sneery remark from one bench about the other festers as a source of resentment.

And Liverpool and Atletico need not be even playing in the same country, let alone against one another, for mutual suspicion to crackle.

Thanks to their pair of victories over an Atletico who in both games were reduced to 10 men, Liverpool have conquered Group B of the Uefa Champions League in double-quick time. Their maximum points so far now means that ahead of Wednesday's matchday five, they are guaranteed to finish top. They now get to be kingmakers over who might join them in the knockout phase.

Liverpool take on second-placed Porto at Anfield with the opportunity to rest players, to experiment, or to give valuable European experience to some of the emerging talent at the club that has been glimpsed over recent weeks. And the possibility of a weakened Liverpool alarms Atletico Madrid, who take on AC Milan in Spain.

Atletico have a point less than Porto, so they know a Porto win at Anfield could push the Spanish champions a step further from reaching the next round. Group B was always set up for a brutal denouement, and leaving aside the authority Jurgen Klopp’s team have established, the rest of the competition for a spot in the top two is as suspenseful as had been anticipated when the draw came up with this quartet of clubs: They have been in a combined total of 25 European Cup finals.

Liverpool v Atletico Madrid ratings

Milan have won seven. They may have only a point from their four group matches so far, but they are not out of the race, and they come to Madrid nursing some potent grumbles about refereeing in previous matches, and deep regrets that they were unable, in their opening matches, to hold on to leads against Liverpool or Diego Simeone’s Atletico.

But the pertinent gripes about officiating are Simeone’s. He was already spiky after Klopp revisited some scathing remarks about Atletico’s deep-lying, cagey, counter-attacking style that the Liverpool manager had made when Atletico came back from two goals behind to win a last-16 tie at Anfield in March 2020.

Then there was Simeone’s reluctance to shake Klopp’s hand - Simeone shakes no rivals’ hand, post-match, as a rule - after Antoine Griezmann had been shown a red card in the see-saw 3-2 Liverpool win in Madrid. Felipe was then dismissed in Liverpool’s 2-0 victory over Atletico at Anfield.

Felipe serves his suspension on Wednesday, while Joao Felix is doubtful because of injury. Milan are missing Fikayo Tomori from the centre of their defence and Ante Rebic from the forward line, which, as head coach Stefano Pioli pointed out, limits his attacking options in a fixture where only a win would maintain Milan’s hope of finishing in the top two.

“It means we only have three forwards available for two places,” said Pioli. He might have added that two of those three, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Olivier Giroud, have a combined age of 75 and have yet to play a full 90 minutes together for Milan.

Both Simeone and Pioli will be almost as curious about what line-up Klopp chooses against Porto at Anfield as about each other’s chosen XIs. “If Porto win they can set up a ‘final’ against Atletico,” Klopp indirectly reminded his rival Simeone, although that winner-takes-all ‘final’ in the last group game, when Porto host Atletico, would need Atletico to match or better Porto’s result on Wednesday.

And Klopp will not field a full-strength Liverpool. Andy Robertson and Jordan Henderson are “okay”, said their manager but he cast doubt on their readiness, in terms of fitness, to start against Porto.

“We have to line up a team to win a football game - we need stability,” he added, sensitive to Atletico’s fears that Liverpool might ease up. “We always respect the competition, [but] we have to think about ourselves and our schedule first.”

Were Klopp to survey a Champions League last 16 without Atletico in it, it might look gentler. So might a knockout phase without Borussia Dortmund, who effectively play off for their survival, without the injured Erling Haaland, at Lisbon’s Sporting. Those two clubs are locked on six points each in a Group C that Ajax command with four wins so far.

A heavyweight could also tumble out of Group D where Sheriff Tiraspol, the Champions League debutants, will attempt in Moldova to repeat their stunning September victory over Real Madrid and potentially leapfrog group leaders Madrid and second-placed Internazionale, the Italian champions, who host Shakhtar Donetsk.

Updated: November 24th 2021, 3:37 AM