Kicking off Liverpool’s string of recent losses, Atletico Madrid were back and ready to battle at Anfield.
Kieran Trippier and Joao Félix returned from injury as Diego Simeone set up his Atleti side in their usual 4-4-2.
Anyone who had seen the first leg knew how this was going to go. Atleti would look to doggedly defend their lead, and Liverpool had to break them down.
Liverpool were better-equipped for this than in the first leg. Jordan Henderson was a more attacking choice at the base of the midfield than Fabinho, who has been in terrible form anyway, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was a more technical choice in the more attacking midfield role than Henderson was in the first leg.
Henderson would drop back into the backline, forming a makeshift back three that made it easy for Liverpool to pass out from the back.
They also zipped the ball about quicker, forcing Atleti to shift more than they had in the first leg. Liverpool still didn’t switch play a lot and when they did it wasn’t generally from flank to flank, but from one flank to the opposite inside channel. Given the Atleti full-backs would have to sprint out to the touchline from central positions each time the ball went wide, this would have been money in the bank for late in the tie as the widemen tired, however Liverpool failed to take advantage.
They did try to exploit those gaps that opened up between the Atleti full-backs and their centre-backs however. The Liverpool full-backs and wingers would pull out to the touchline, drawing the attentions of their opposite numbers, then Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right, Georginio Wijnaldum on the left, or Roberto Firmino on either side if the former weren’t in position would make runs through these gaps to pick up the ball and cross.
Atleti’s centre midfielders and centre-backs were wary of the threat and always did a good job of getting over to deal with the danger quickly, so Liverpool weren’t having a lot of time or space to pick out these crosses, but Atleti were conceding a lot of them. It was from one of these moves that Liverpool took the lead through Wijnaldum.
With Saul Niguez often having to drop back to help out Renan Lodi with Mohamed Salah or to pick up Oxlade-Chamberlain pulling wide, Trent Alexander-Arnold also found space ahead of him to step inside and swing in his dangerous crosses.
This was essentially the pattern of the game. Liverpool would try to attack these gaps to get in a cross and Atleti would either scramble it away or call upon Jan Oblak to make a save – the Slovenian showing exactly why many consider him the best goalkeeper on the planet.
Firmino was always buzzing about too, making himself available for passes through the centre, while once Salah realised he could easily isolate Lodi, he would receive the ball by the touchline then dribble past the Brazilian.
Primarily concerned with defending, Atleti didn’t have much to offer going forward. Like most teams against Liverpool, they simply tried to hit long balls in behind for their forwards to chase. With one exception in the opening minutes of the game where Joe Gomez was too fixated on the run in behind him to notice Virgil van Dijk was playing them all onside anyway, Liverpool’s backline dealt easily with these attacks, dropping off quickly to collect the ball ahead of Diego Costa or Félix.
It took until extra time for them to do it, but Liverpool finally doubled their lead. In search of a goal, Atletico had opened up as they pressed high in an attempt to win back the ball and get some attacks of their own going. Liverpool looked unworried by the pressure though: Gomez calmly pushed forward with the ball and chipped it down the line to Wijnaldum, who flicked the ball past Lodi and crossed for Firmino to finish on his second attempt.
Atleti immediately responded. Liverpool won the ball in midfield and calmly passed back to Adrian, who promptly passed it straight to an Atleti player and made a hash of the save, which we have covered in more detail elsewhere on the site.
As Atleti now possessed an away goal, Liverpool desperately needed a goal. They pushed more and more men forward in search of one and Atletico punished them with two goals of their own on the counter-attack, sealing their progression in the competition.
Cup winners tend to be looked down upon as lucky compared to league winners, however you could easily invert that: leagues give room for teams to have an off-day and recover, whereas cups are merciless. Even in two-legged ties, the results of the first legs weigh heavily on the second. Many leagues are won on the ability to bully weaker teams, yet cups are hard-won tests of mental strength. A few seconds of madness can throw away everything a club has worked for all season.
Despite tempting it by sitting back and allowing Liverpool to come onto them, Atleti kept strong and didn’t succumb, showing the mental fortitude Simeone instils in his teams.
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