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Atletico Madrid 1-0 Liverpool: Champions League trophy defence in the balance for Jurgen Klopp
Liverpool's 1-0 defeat to Atletico Madrid leaves the European champions with work to do at Anfield, writes Adam Bate.
Last Updated: 19/02/20 12:05pm
"This is one of the most difficult fixtures in the life of a football player," said Jurgen Klopp before Liverpool's Champions League tie against Atletico Madrid. So it proved as the runaway Premier League leaders, on a run of 43 games unbeaten in domestic competition, were beaten 1-0 in the Metropolitano. Liverpool didn't even muster a shot on target.
They pressed and they probed, they dominated possession and sustained attack after attack. But while Mohamed Salah headed wide and Jordan Henderson guided a volley just the other side of the same post, the equaliser never came. Liverpool will fancy their chances back at Anfield but this was a reminder that there are still teams capable of thwarting them.
This was only Liverpool's third defeat of the season and that includes the 5-0 defeat that Neil Critchley's youngsters suffered against Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup. More revealing is the fact that the other loss came in this competition away to Napoli.
Liverpool have actually failed to score in five of their 10 Champions League away games since the start of last season. Indeed, they have lost six of their last seven fixtures away from Anfield against teams from the top five leagues - a run that began in Roma in May 2018 and has since taken in defeats to Barcelona, PSG, Napoli twice and now Atletico.
Of course, that record should be a comfort as well as a concern. Liverpool have actually won the Champions League in the middle of that run and given their astonishing record at Anfield, it would not be a huge surprise if they are able to turn this tie around next month.
Atletico away is as tough as it gets. An end-of-level boss in Diego Simeone. Difficulty set to maximum. This is a team that have conceded twice in 13 Champions League knockout ties in front of their own fans. "They are a results machine," said Klopp. The form has waned of late but this was Atletico in their element, playing the role of underdog once more.
An early goal had to be avoided but Liverpool succumbed with Saul Niguez stabbing home inside four minutes. That was only the second goal conceded in a dozen games since Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez were reunited at the back. From that point onwards the pattern was set with Liverpool's feet held to the flames in the Metropolitano cauldron.
Liverpool have been imperious all season but if there is one weakness it is their inexperience when behind. It just happens so rarely. Villa aside, this was the first time since Napoli at home in November. Klopp's side salvaged something that night but this time it proved too much and there were some slightly worrying signs that they were trying to force things.
Alisson produced a good save with his feet to prevent Alvaro Morata doubling the lead but nobody else impressed. Van Dijk's error led to that chance, Trent Alexander-Arnold's crossing was below par and the forwards struggled to find space inside a packed penalty box.
It was a disappointing day to fail to find their best form because there had been huge optimism coming into the game given that this was the first time this season that Klopp has fielded what must now be regarded as his strongest starting line-up.
He had options on the bench too, but the substitutions were not a success. Divock Origi struggled badly after coming on for Sadio Mane at half-time. Salah came off for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Henderson made way because of an injury. From the hour mark onwards, Liverpool's rhythm was continually disturbed. Atletico nullified them.
Simeone had been full of praise for Liverpool beforehand, highlighting their ability to win in different ways. "This team is much more intense, more adaptable," he said. "We are facing a magnificent team, really well trained by a coach who is different and has different alternatives in his team. He can play counter-attack, he can play the positioning game."
But faced with a deep defence, Liverpool's 72.5 per cent possession was not enough to fashion the openings needed to test Jan Oblak in the opposition goal. Others have frustrated Liverpool this way in the Premier League but never for 90 minutes. Atletico are a different proposition and the fear is that they could repeat the trick in the second leg.
It will be a difficult night for Liverpool because even if they score the first two goals, they will still be vulnerable. This trophy defence is in the balance. But the lesson of last season - the lesson of just about every season for this famous old club - is that a European night at Anfield will be difficult for the opponent too. Klopp was keen to stress that afterwards.
"There are many happy faces in Atletico and I get that because it is a big win," said Klopp. "But it is not over yet. That is the only thing that I feel."
A goal down. But Liverpool are not out.