Liverpool’s dream of a third successive Champions League final is over after Atletico Madrid scored three in extra time to knock the Reds out.
Liverpool 2-3 Atletico Madrid (AET)
On aggregate: 2-4
Anfield, Champions League Last-16, second leg
11 March 2020
Goals: Wijnaldum 43′, Firmino 94′; Llorente 97′ 105′, Morata 120′
Jurgen’s positive lineup
Jurgen Klopp had two real decisions to make for his starting lineup, and as generally seems to be the case, they were both in central midfield.
Jordan Henderson‘s return to fitness was a big boost for the Reds, with Fabinho recently out of form, and it wasn’t an almighty surprise to see the captain thrust straight back into the lineup.
The other pick saw Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain start alongside Gini Wijnaldum ahead of Hendo.
With Naby Keita apparently unavailable once more, Ox’s inclusion was a must to add a driving, penetrative thrust through the centre and a goal threat from range – both important for shifting Atletico’s packed defence around.
It was a clear message from Klopp: energy, intent and aggression would be the order of the night.
Work rate and chasing
It was visible from kick-off: Liverpool’s pressing and hounding higher upfield was back to a better extent than recently, the boxing-in of opposition midfield lines made a welcome return.
This was, admittedly, partly due to Atletico Madrid’s willingness to start their first-half defensive line about six rows back in the Kop, but the Reds were prepared to get through a lot more running in pursuit of their objective.
Importantly and impressively, this wasn’t just restricted to the midfielders: Both Sadio Mane and Mo Salah could be seen winning back possession outside the Reds’ own penalty area, too.
There was little margin for error and for 90 minutes, the team was near-perfect.
The 8s who were 10s
Gini and Ox, standing ovation. Top marks for both for mixing the attacking output needed and the defensive resilience demanded.
The pair was excellent, on and off the ball. For the first 45 minutes it was an exhibition of the best of the Dutchman’s traits: arse-sticking-out to shield the ball, terrier-like snapping at Atleti heels to win back possession in the Liverpool half and, of course, those runs into the box.
Against Bournemouth, Gini was racing into the box at every opportunity, but the ball never came his way. This time it did, a couple of times, and one vital occasion saw him bury a brilliant header. Four knock-out goals in Europe for the No. 5, who really is a crucial game player.
As for Ox, this was one of his best performances of the season: relentless running, clever movement beyond defenders in different areas, always willing to open himself up for a quick pass or shot—and the all-important delivery for Gini’s goal.
The duo were a massive part of the Reds producing the win in 90 minutes, taking the game to extra time, where Wijnaldum continued his excellent showing with a lung-bursting run and cross from the right wing to set up Firmino’s goal.
Extra time, extra tough to take
Five minutes into the extra 30, it was glorious.
Firmino had broken his home stadium duck, Wijnaldum had taken on the entire back line by brute force, the songs were loud, the progression looked a matter of time.
Then two moments of slackness at the back cost the lot.
Adrian‘s presence between the sticks hadn’t caused too much anxiety beforehand, but between 95 and 120 minutes, the gap between himself and Alisson was made all too apparent.
A terrible kick out when the obvious route was to go square and left into space gave Atleti the chance; a slip as he prepared to move across goal ensured the relatively benign shot turned into a dagger thrust.
The second and third goals, with Adrian beaten at his near post both times, were an ultimately irrelevant underlining of the fine margins between glory and heartache.
There cannot be disappointment at the performance put on show by the Reds, but the difference between having an elite stopper and a second choice was glaringly apparent at either end of the pitch.
Domestic matters and finishing the job
Liverpool should not, cannot, allow this season to feel like anything approaching an anticlimax.
The job is still there to be finished in the Premier League, social and health matters allowing, and this has always been the No. 1 requirement, the big job which Jurgen Klopp originally undertook.
We’re so close, and once it’s wrapped up the Reds will have won no less than three different trophies this season—unthinkable in the Roy reign, improbable with Brendan, a reality now.
Liverpool won’t win No. 7 this year, but No. 19 is arguably more important at this stage of our rebuild, our ascension to the top of world football.
Best team in the world or not, we can’t win every game, every time.
It’s always awful exiting Europe, the competition we dominate from a domestic historical perspective, but we’ve got an almighty alternative in store soon. Take heart, and enjoy it, still.