Liverpool's European invincibility ended by resolute Atletico Madrid and 'outstanding' Jan Oblak
Champions League title defence ended in the Round of 16 at Anfield on Wednesday night
Perhaps Liverpool only have five days to endure without being champions of either their country or continent. Their reign in Europe officially ended on Wednesday.
They could clinch the Premier League title on Monday but, some 285 days after tasting glory in Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium, they were eliminated by Diego Simeone’s abrasive team.
“We were outstanding for 95 minutes,” Virgil van Dijk said. “The only thing is we are out of the Champions League.”
A team who, at one stage, had triumphed in 35 of 36 league games lost their winning habit. Instead, Liverpool repeated their past: not the 2019 Champions League winners, but their previous defending champions, eliminated in the last-16 14 years earlier.
It illustrated much: the nature of knockout football is that the best side in Europe is not always the Champions League winners. Look at Rafa Benitez’s team who triumphed in 2005, despite limping in 37 points behind Chelsea in England.
And ties between the European elite can hinge on moments. Rewind 15 months and Liverpool would have exited in the group stages but for a marvellous injury-time save from Alisson to deny Napoli’s Arkadiusz Milik. Fast forward to this week and his deputy Adrian was culpable for Marcos Llorente’s crucial first goal.
A tie that pitted arguably the world’s top two goalkeepers – with apologies to Barcelona’s Marc-Andre ter Stegen – was decided in the absence of one and by the excellence of the other, Jan Oblak.
“They had an outstanding goalkeeper and he kept them alive," said Van Dijk. Kieran Trippier, who has a fine vantage point as Atletico’s right-back, said: “There have been so many games this season where he has pulled some saves off and I have thought to myself: 'How did you do that?'”
Alisson has underlined the importance of the last line of the defence. Liverpool’s last two Champions League exits are attributable to goalkeepers, even if Adrian’s display was not remotely comparable with the unfortunate Loris Karius’ harrowing 2018 final.
But outstanding performances by outfield players, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum in particular, were rendered redundant on Wednesday. It was a historic occasion, but for the wrong reasons.
Liverpool had a sheen of invincibility under Jurgen Klopp: three previous European campaigns, three finals. They savoured the drama: Dejan Lovren’s injury-time winner against Borussia Dortmund, the Anfield bursts of goals as Manchester City and Roma were blown away, Trent Alexander-Arnold’s quickly-taken corner and Divock Origi’s finish to complete their greatest comeback against Barcelona.
Then they ran into a team with similar resolve, one who reached four European finals in eight seasons themselves. In the meeting of irresistible object and immovable force, it was Atletico who could not be shifted out of the Champions League.
“We are so strong defensively, we keep our shape, we run ourselves into the ground for each other,” Trippier said. “Obviously we knew Liverpool had beaten Barcelona 4-0 last year but they are playing a different team in us.”
And they encountered a different manager. A frustrated Klopp afterwards implied Atletico played anti-football. “When I see players like Koke, Saul [Niguez], Llorente... they could play proper football,” he said.
Football’s most uncompromising, most unapologetic party-poopers chose their way, concealing their quality in two blocks of four stubborn spoilers. They have adopted the personality of their charismatic, complaining, histrionic, hysterical manager.
“Starting from Diego Simeone - everyone feeds off him - he's an unbelievable manager,” Trippier said. “I've never seen anything like it, to be honest with you.”
Simeone’s simple explanation of Atletico’s ethos – “to win; with all our soul” – summed up the thinking of the leading thinker of the Argentinian school of sometimes unpopular pragmatism. The ends have always justified the means.
Liverpool’s seasons have often ended in European finals. This one will not, but Atletico’s could culminate in that favourite haunt of Benitez’s 2005 team: Istanbul.
Published: March 12, 2020 05:04 PM