Gini and Ox serve up Liverpool’s biggest positive in valiant defeat to Atletico

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Leaving the Champions League hurts, but the performances of Gini Wijnaldum and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in an excellent overall display should be encouraging.

The Reds needed a big performance at Anfield, and largely they provided just that.

After losing so bitterly in Madrid three weeks previous, Liverpool took the fight to Atletico on home turf, but ultimately fell short.

It was a result, hallmarked by an error from Adrian in extra time, that left Jurgen Klopp struggling to comprehend, as he gave a deflated assessment after the game.

“Everyone showed up in the best way, the boys delivered a super game, fought hard, played well, scored wonderful goals…” he explained.

“…but we lost.”

It was a bitter blow as a Marcos Llorente brace—two strikes which lifted his career tally to five—and Alvaro Morata’s 23rd goal against English opposition—having played in England for two years—undid a stunning effort from players and crowd.

The bottom line is Liverpool are now out of the Champions League, eight games into their defence of the trophy, and for only the second season in Klopp’s time at the club they won’t contest a major European final.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, March 11, 2020: Liverpool's players line-up for a team group photograph before the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 2nd Leg match between Liverpool FC and Club Atlético de Madrid at Anfield. Back row L-R: Georginio Wijnaldum, Joe Gomez, Virgil van Dijk, Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah, goalkeeper Adrián San Miguel del Castillo. Front row L-R: Sadio Mané, captain Jordan Henderson, Andy Robertson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Klopp went bold with his selection amid uncertainty over the makeup of his midfield; Fabinho was dropped, Jordan Henderson returned and the relatively ‘safety’ of Adam Lallana and James Milner were overlooked.

Wijnaldum’s place was, arguably, the only one undisputed, but with Henderson restored to the side next to the Dutchman it was a big show of faith to start Oxlade-Chamberlain alongside them.

Despite the manager’s insistence that it was “only half-time” after the first leg, the onus was on Liverpool to strike hard and fast.

This may be seen as a relatively quiet campaign for Oxlade-Chamberlain so far—certainly, the midfielder himself has admitted to a discontent at his form, despite being the club’s fourth-highest scorer with seven—but Wednesday night saw him make his 34th appearance.

Only four times in his 10-season career as a senior professional has he made more, and only once has he found the back of the net more often—with 10 for Southampton while in League One in 2010/11 his best-ever output.

But it is fair to say he has flattered to deceive, and relied upon for one of the biggest games of the season he needed to reward Klopp’s belief.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, March 11, 2020: Liverpool's xxxx during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 2nd Leg match between Liverpool FC and Club Atlético de Madrid at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

It proved to be his best performance in a Liverpool shirt since those heady days of 2017/18, when he made himself undroppable in the middle of the park.

He drove the Reds on, weaving in and out of Atletico’s supposedly rigid defensive line and exchanging passes with Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino with a crisp, one-touch fluency that has evaded him since returning from his long-term knee injury.

Oxlade-Chamberlain kept the intensity high, and prior to the Reds’ opener he was the biggest threat to Jan Oblak’s goal.

He drew a sprawling save from the Slovenian with his low drive in the 13th minute, and only Salah (seven) attempted more shots than the No. 15 (six) over the course of the 120 minutes.

His defining contribution was, of course, the brilliant cross for Wijnaldum’s header to break the deadlock, and it came from a position that he regularly found himself, with overwhelming the right flank a clear game plan.

Such was the quality and consistency Oxlade-Chamberlain provided it was something of a surprise to see him as the first player Klopp brought off, in the 81st minute.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, March 11, 2020: Liverpool's Georginio Wijnaldum celebrates scoring the first goal during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 2nd Leg match between Liverpool FC and Club Atlético de Madrid at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

But his exit did pave the way for Wijnaldum to step up in a role he would no doubt relish on a more regular basis.

Wijnaldum was central to Liverpool’s suffocating pressing game, and only Andy Robertson (five) made more successful tackles than the No. 5 (three), while his physicality wrested control in midfield.

A bona fide big-game player, he stepped up on Wednesday night just as he did in the comeback win over Barcelona, and his goal was certainly reminiscent of that triumph in May.

It was a display that Wijnaldum’s seemingly reserves for these occasions—be that by instruction or mentality—as he meshed his usual economical approach with a more defiant edge moving forward.

He had already scored by the time Milner replaced Oxlade-Chamberlain, but he got even better when the shackles were loosened as he took over in the attacking role as No. 8.

Three of his four chances created came following this tactical switch, with no player crafting more in the final half-hour of the game.

Like Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wijnaldum laid on a goal from the right, and it was an equally impressive cross that teed Roberto Firmino up to make it 2-0 on the night and, finally, put them ahead on aggregate.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, March 11, 2020: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp reacts in extra-time during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 2nd Leg match between Liverpool FC and Club Atlético de Madrid at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Such was the strength of both performances—given the platform to do so by Henderson’s composed night at the base of the midfield—that it was crushing they ended up on the losing side.

But that is the reality Klopp and his side were faced with after, in the manager’s words, “the momentum changed” with Llorente’s leveller, and now out of the Champions League they must pick themselves up for a renewed charge in the Premier League.

Doubt obviously looms over when and how the domestic campaign will come to a conclusion in terms of logistics, but there is little doubt that the title will end up at Anfield.

With Henderson back, and Fabinho having struggled for form since his return to injury, Klopp may have settled on his strongest midfield unit for the remainder of the season.

The dovetailing duties of Wijnaldum and a revitalised Oxlade-Chamberlain could give Liverpool the boost they need after a run of disappointing results, while Henderson can resume his surge to end-of-season accolades as No. 6.

As the Reds respond to frustration in Europe, this may serve as the biggest positive to emerge from an undoubtedly valiant effort in defeat.

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