Liverpool returned to Champions League action with a 1-0 defeat at Atletico Madrid in the first leg of the last 16 on Tuesday night.
Atletico Madrid 1-0 Liverpool
Wanda Metropolitano, Champions League last 16 first leg
18 February, 2020
Goal: Saul Niguez 4′
The ‘strongest’ XI on show
By now you’ll likely know: Alisson, Trent, Gomez, Virgil, Robbo, Fab, Gini, Hendo, Sadio, Bobby and Sadio—our strongest side for some, the favoured 11 by game time… but an actual lineup which had never started a game for Liverpool.
So here it was, for the first time from kick-off and for only the second time at any stage of a game ever, and it was in a rather big game against a rather good side.
Only the 2nd time ever that the @LFC starting XI this evening has appeared together in any game, at any stage. The previous occasion was from the 76th to 88th minutes of the fixture at Napoli on 3rd October 2018.
— Ged Rea (@ged0407) February 18, 2020
How did it fare? Not spectacularly, and not for long, either.
A goal conceded within minutes of kick-off, some reasonably dominant possession, a real lack of penetration thanks to wayward crossing and not enough movement.
There were, it must be said, a few rusty pairs of boots on show. Fabinho hasn’t had huge amounts of game time, between injury and the winter break, and perhaps it showed once or twice. Sadio Mane didn’t have too much impact either, and was subbed at the break.
Divock Origi‘s introduction brought an end to the much-anticipated 11 on the pitch, and perhaps it was a reminder that it’s not always the best 11 players, but the right mix of all the abilities in the squad, which wins games most often.
Fouls and frustrations
There’s often talk of how a great atmosphere can affect players. One non-player seemed to be affected on the night, this time: Szymon Marciniak, the referee.
Last season Jurgen Klopp was unimpressed how he made the Reds appear like “butchers” after picking up six yellow cards away to PSG.
“The ref needs to be prepared for a game like this and he looked not prepared,” the boss said in regards to the antics of the PSG players.
It doesn’t look as though Marciniak has been doing much preparation work since then, either; he bought into the apparent ‘fouls’ that Atleti asked for at every turn, from the most minor bumps to the most petulant dives.
“We gave them the best possible start for them to get the fans up behind them and they could start falling over and trying to get under our skin a bit,” said Andy Robertson post-match.
Marciniak then also booked Klopp for good measure, after Jurgen remonstrated about an advantage which was not an advantage after a handball.
It was a frustrating evening all around, but Liverpool’s players had to get with the programme a little quicker; stop giving Atleti men the opportunity to go down, or else engage in the same dark arts themselves. They did neither.
Not a shot on target all game long speaks its own type of frustrations.
Mane, as above, was subbed at the break after an ineffective return to the lineup. Mohamed Salah was next off, following a frustrating night where the best chance was headed wide and much of his passing was wayward.
Firmino worked hard and made a few nice passing combinations, but wasn’t a goal threat at all.
Where else was the moment which mattered, the game-changing piece of magic, to come from? This wasn’t a game where the central midfielders would be expected to burst on relentlessly, so the full-backs are usually the outlet.
This time they were poor. Robertson seemed reluctant to overlap Origi for some reason and Trent had lots of crossing chances… but his sighter was way off.
Liverpool needed a big moment from a big player and didn’t really get it at the Wanda. Someone will have to do so at Anfield.
The squad looked strong ahead of kick-off, with a bench full of potential starters in a variety of positions.
That, though, only made it more disappointing that nobody really came on and sparked the team into life.
Often it has been Oxlade-Chamberlain who gets that cheerleader role, the extra acceleration and power in his game transmitting to the rest of the team for the final third of the match.
Here he tried, but it didn’t come off, while Origi and Milner were peripheral at best—the latter with barely any time on the pitch.
Keita might be a better option some of the time, while for the next leg it might even be worth considering the maverick quality of Curtis Jones as a late option, if circumstances dictate.
Either way, Klopp needs different alternatives to turn to and they need more inspiration than tonight.
Second leg and domestic matters
“We know we can do better and luckily we have a second leg to put it right,” said Robertson post-match.
Well, we need a second-leg comeback at Anfield in the Champions League against Spanish opposition.
Where have we heard that before?
Thankfully, this Atletico team are nowhere near as good as Barcelona, and this Liverpool team have even more self-belief now in part because of last year’s exertions.
The fans, too, will be confident that the team can mount a comeback – but that shouldn’t be taken as a given, particularly if captain and recent in-form man Jordan Henderson is missing through injury sustained near the end tonight.
Atletico will defend even more doggedly and resort to even more dark arts at Anfield than they did here, baying for every call and every decision from kick-off onwards. We’ll need to be far quicker, far better on the ball, than on this showing.
But before then, four more domestic games. West Ham, Watford, Chelsea and Bournemouth, across two competitions which the team have designs on winning. Let’s get straight back to winning ways and keep the three-pronged assault going, at least until the second leg.
“Our people will be ready,” said Klopp post-match. “Welcome to Anfield, it’s not over yet.”