Atleti find Paradise in Anfield on Manic Night
At first, Diego Simeone ran onto the pitch, some of his playing and coaching staff behind him, before they all got stopped in their tracks. Saul’s 92nd-minute header that found the top corner was flagged offside and Atletico Madrid’s celebrations were cut short. With the benefit of hindsight, one could say that short-lived run for Simeone was ripe rehearsal for what was to come; as he would finally get his chance to go arms out, yelling at the sky at Anfield.
For 95 minutes of this second leg, this tie looked to be heading one way, or rather turning around. Atleti had a slender lead from the first leg three weeks ago, but Liverpool had found their way back level just before halftime here, and were very much on the up. The second half was played in one pattern, Liverpool going one way, Atletico blocking. The Reds were hitting a brick wall, but every time they came at that wall, they took a piece of it, it cracked a little, and it was only a matter of time before the whole got broken down.
The 94th minute – the fourth of extra-time – looked like it, when Roberto Firmino converted the rebound from his own initial header to put Liverpool 2-0 up on the night and 2-1 ahead on aggregate. Anfield and Liverpool had done it again, another night of sheer force of will and performance against a Spanish side for Jurgen Klopp’s men. Atletico now had to do something they hadn’t done since the fourth minute of the tie: score.
They’d offered little up front, they didn’t seem able to put passes together in the final third, or muster any real sustainability or creativity up there, and that seemed like that, all but epitomised when Saul kicked the turf in disgust shortly after Liverpool had gone two up. Yet, shortly after Liverpool had gone two up, Los Colcheronos would somehow, not just regain the advantage, but all but cement it, via a nine-minute double from Marcos Llorente. And then Simeone could begin his run.
In a season of turbulence, Atleti needed a night like this. The performance was far from perfect, with the Spanish side having a lot for which to thank goalkeeper Jan Oblak, but it didn’t matter. Atleti needed this. They needed a midfielder, known for his defensive midfield qualities – if known for anything at all – and who hadn’t scored a European goal before this game, to score a brace at the Kop end in extra-time. They needed Simeone to run across the touchline in delight, reminiscent of how he did against Chelsea in the semi-final in 2014. They needed Alvaro Morata, after scoring a third in stoppage time at the end of extra-time, to kneel in front of the away fans, in part celebration, part gratitude, part euphoria, and part relief.
Perhaps it was better this way. Perhaps it reflected something that it wasn’t just a defensive, backs-to-the-wall job from Simeone’s men, but that when all started to crumble, when it looked like the opportunity had gone, they pieced something together, even though they got a helping hand. It was full resolve mode from the 2016 finalists to find a way to knock out the holders.
In the first leg, Atleti felt like the Atleti of old, no attempt to change the style or answer questions about being more proactive. And here, they completed that job; it wasn’t just that they beat Liverpool. It was that they seemed like Atleti doing so, with a manic manager on the touchline and a team of sons of bitches that annoyed opponents and were the source of ire.
Simeone is famed for his ‘result is God’ line, and in a season where everything about his team has been questioned and questionable, including him, Atletico needed paradise. It’s probably fitting that Anfield, a ground that can sometimes make football feel like a religion, was where they’d find it.
Kunle Ajao121 Posts
Kunle Ajao is a football writer and columnist for spotkick. Having made a toss of himself trying to actually play the game, he knew better and got a pen instead of boots. Spends a bit of his time with the game, and thinks he's a bit like Sid Lowe. He's not