Liverpool have it all to do in the second leg of their Champions League last 16 tie against Atletico Madrid after falling to a 1-0 defeat at the Wanda Metropolitana stadium.
An early Saul Niguez goal gave the hosts a victory borne out of defensive solidity and gamesmanship with the Reds unable to prize open their stubborn defence and, despite all their possession, work Jan Oblak.
Much of the pre-game narrative centred around Liverpool’s strength from set pieces and Atletico’s weakness from dead balls. But it was the home team who opened the scoring from a Koke inswinging corner after just four minutes.
After a fortuitous ricochet off Fabinho, Saul — earmarked before the game as the Spaniards’ best player — tapped home from close range.
The Reds responded well, in terms of controlling possession and territory, but Oblak was untroubled in Atleti’s goal with the home team’s clear plan — sitting deep in a disciplined 442 and blocking off the central lanes of the pitch — working a treat.
And, despite enjoying very little of the ball, it was Diego Simeone’s team who came closest to the half’s second goal. An untypically slack header from Virgil van Dijk saw the ball worked to Alvaro Morata, but the Chelsea loanee fired straight at Alisson and the reigning champions escaped unpunished.
The closest Liverpool — for whom Andy Robertson was their standout player — came to an equaliser was when a lucky bounce fell to Mohamed Salah in the box and the Egyptian’s shot, which looked goalbound, smashed off the head of Stefan Savic and over the bar.
The visitors kept plugging away, but, even with 72% possession, Oblak remained unworked in the hosts goal and team’s went into the break with Atleti holding their smash and grab 1-0 lead.
On a yellow card for a needless flailing armed challenge on Sime Vrsaljko, Sadio Mane was substituted at half time for Divock Origi, the player who sealed the Reds sixth European title at this very stadium in June.
The La Liga side made a change of their own and Marcos Llorente — who was brought on for Thomas Lemar — when Vrsaljko’s cross found him in the box.
From that chance on, though, the game continued to flow like the first half and Salah, once again, had the best opportunity. Joe Gomez, stationed high after the Reds’ press trapped the hosts in after a corner, aimed a delicious looking cross at Salah, but the number 11 headed wide.
That was the Egyptian’s last piece of action of note as, after an almost 20 minute lull in the game — facilitated by Atletico’s defensive nous and Liverpool’s toothlessness in possession, Klopp elected to swap him with Alex Oxlade Chamberlain.
The switch almost paid immediate dividends as a move involving the Englishman saw Origi cross to Jordan Henderson inside the box but the captain skewed his effort wide when he should have worked Oblak. Looking injured, the skipper was replaced by James Milner not long after to cap a frustrating personal night.
Atletico’s gamesmanship — falling at every half piece of contact — was being bought hook, lion and sinker from the Polish referee, Szymon Marciniak, and it slowed the game down to walking pace at time. The official missed a blatant handball, and then awarding Atleti a soft free kick soon after drew the ire of Klopp and earned him a booking.
Not crafting anything of note — even with all the ball and territory — Liverpool had to settle for the 1-0 defeat in a frustrating night, which was a perfect storm of Simeone tactics, a poor referee and a limp Reds showing.
Liverpool team: Alisson; Alexander Arnold, Gomez, van Dijk, Robertson; Fabinho, Wijnaldum, Henderson; Salah, Firmino, Mane.
Substitutions: Oxlade Chamberlain for Salah, Origi for Mane, Milner for Henderson.
Subs not used: Adrian, Matip, Minamino, Keita.