Emotion will only get you so far in football, even if you are Liverpool. In the three weeks between now and March 11, when Atletico Madrid will walk into a cauldron at Anfield, Jurgen Klopp has problems to solve.
He was already getting to work in the immediate aftermath at the Wanda Metropolitano, with a few gentle mind games in his press conference that stretched beyond the understandable, yet predictable, ‘you’ve got to come to Anfield’ rhetoric.
‘We know much more about the team now,’ Klopp said when asked how Liverpool need to improve for the second leg. ‘You have to feel the team out. I like half-time, you know more about the opponent.
Diego Simeone is the happier man after the first-leg of Atletico Madrid v Liverpool
The Atletico manager galvanised his team as they recorded a 1-0 victory on Tuesday night
Liverpool failed to get a shot on target in a meek forward display at the Wanda Metroplitano
‘All the analysis never happened (in a game) against you. We had a lot of Barcelona games, but Barcelona played different against us. We can play better in the final third but we know more about the opponent that will help us.’
But the Atletico roadblock that Liverpool were repelled by in the final third on Tuesday night is an increasingly unique challenge in modern football, particularly if you ply your trade in the Premier League where an unwritten rule seems to be that the better you are, the more attacking you are.
There is a reason why Atletico have only conceded twice in 13 home Champions League knock-out ties and they are the first team to stop Liverpool scoring in 34 matches.
For Diego Simeone, Tuesday night’s victory was a masterclass in what his teams can do so well. They snatch goals, defend in swarms and antagonise opponents while Simeone himself oversees proceedings like a conductor, repeatedly galvanising supporters, appealing relentlessly to the referee and maniacally goading every last drop of sweat from his players.
Klopp has often spoken about how, in football, teams can bring an opponent to their level for 90 minutes. That’s what happened on Tuesday. Atletico made Liverpool play on their terms, and nobody is as good as Atletico at their own game.
Jurgen Klopp and his staff now have three weeks to plot ways to cause Atletico new problems
Sadio Mane was withdrawn at half-time on a yellow card, with Klopp fearing a red
So what does Klopp and his staff have to fix? He will need more energy and cohesion out of his front three, as he alluded to in his post-match quotes. Liverpool’s attackers were often forced deep by Atletico and struggled to carve out space. It is tough to probe a team when you’re nearer the halfway line than the penalty area.
They didn’t muster a shot on target against Atletico, which is simply not good enough against a team of that calibre.
Klopp will need his players to keep their cool against Atletico’s gamesmanship as well, which will likely start early at Anfield in order to stifle the growth of any momentum.
Sadio Mane going off at half-time was a wise, if not conservative, decision by Klopp who was fearful of him being sent-off, while Mohamed Salah was withdrawn with 15 minutes to go on the clock. He didn’t exchange a single pass with Roberto Firmino and Mane in the opening 25 minutes of the game. Not even Simeone would have anticipated that in his pre-match planning.
Trent Alexander-Arnold did not attack as much as usual, but that may have been be design
Naby Keita is a midfield option that could help Liverpool play with pace through the lines
In midfield, Naby Keita will be pushing for a place in the starting line-up, especially now captain Jordan Henderson has a hamstring injury that will likely curtail his involvement in the return fixture.
James Milner was the correct replacement on Tuesday with just 10 minutes to go but with winning the only outcome good enough for Liverpool in the second game, Keita would be the best option to start.
He can get Liverpool playing through the lines and they lacked impetus and momentum at times against Atletico.
Klopp will have to work out how his full-backs can get forward against Simeone’s men as well. Trent Alexander-Arnold seemed particularly cautious, which could well have been by design considering it was the first leg, but when he and Robertson had the ball, they could have been more productive with it.
Liverpool’s persistence in crossing high into the box was easily dealt with by Stefan Savic and Felip, although Salah should have done better with a headed chance that came his way in the second half from a Joe Gomez delivery.
Atletico will relish the opportunity to silence the Anfield crowd in March’s second leg
Atletico are used to playing in a ferocious atmosphere of their own, as Liverpool found out
Liverpool were bordering profligacy with the 71 per cent of possession they had but Atletico deserve credit for how they defended. As Klopp said, it was with extremely high levels of concentration as well as with a big heart.
But they will need that all over again at Anfield. There is a long time now for Klopp and his staff not just to plot how to stifle Atletico’s threats, but to create new methods of causing havoc upon Simeone’s men.
They will draw encouragement from what Atletico did last year at this stage of the tournament; beating Juventus 2-0 at home before a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick in the second leg saw them lose 3-2 on aggregate.
Liverpool are Champions League holders and impending Premier League winners; they are too good not to come again and Simeone knows that. But he will relish the prospect.
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