Great Britain

Saúl's early strike gives Atlético Madrid first-leg edge over disjointed Liverpool

Liverpool will not fear having to overturn a Champions League deficit against Spanish opposition at Anfield, they may thrive on the challenge once more, but they know from one draining night in Madrid that Atlético are no Barcelona. The European champions were beaten by a display of fight, resilience and menace from Diego Simeone’s side. They are qualities Barcelona lack and Atletico were supposed to have mislaid this season. But no, they are still a Diego Simeone team.

Saúl Ñíguez’s early goal condemned Liverpool to a rare reverse and maintained Atlético’s record of never having lost a knockout home tie in the Champions League under their Argentinian coach. Liverpool need to rediscover their Premier League form in the second leg to preserve hopes of a return to Istanbul.

This was a meeting of two machines: the “proper machine” that Klopp insisted Atlético remain despite a difficult transitional season against the relentless Liverpool model sweeping aside everything in its path. Klopp marked the occasion by starting with what many would regard as his strongest XI – remarkably, for the first time. That gave another demonstration of the strength of the reigning European champions, the reliable options available to their manager and further cause for anxiety within the Atlético ranks.

It did not affect them in the slightest in the first half. Backed by a passionate support before the game and during, Atlético thrived on the occasion and the opportunity to silence their growing band of critics in Spain.

Red flares greeted the Atlético bus on its arrival at the ground. Red warning signs confronted Liverpool from the kick-off. The European champions were put under immediate pressure by a positive, energised Simeone team that fed off the fervent support of its crowd and the muted response of their opponents. Liverpool were uncharacteristically slow off the mark and punished for it.

In the opening moments Ángel Correa slipped easily away from Andy Robertson on the Atlético right and Renan Lodi did likewise to Trent Alexander-Arnold on the left. Dangerous crosses followed from both and, though Virgil van Dijk headed Lodi’s delivery away from Álvaro Morata at the near post, he conceded an avoidable corner when Atlético returned the ball into the Liverpool area. Koke took it, Morata missed it, but the midfielder’s cross struck the blameless Fabinho on the shins in a crowded goalmouth and rolled perfectly for Saúl to convert beyond Alisson at close range. A lengthy VAR check threatened to spoil the wild celebrations but, with Van Dijk playing Saúl onside, the goal stood.

An early, slender advantage was sufficient for Atlético to retreat and invite Liverpool to play around their compact 4-4-2 formation. The visitors’ composure and performance inevitably improved as a result yet the home side continued to cut through Liverpool’s defence with surprising ease. Robertson had to produce an acrobatic and vital interception to prevent Morata converting at the back post after Lodi threaded a superb cross behind Liverpool’s central defenders. The former Chelsea striker was then released in space down the left and, having cut back inside Fabinho for a low angled shot, he was denied by the legs of Alisson.

Liverpool dominated possession as the first half progressed – they were allowed to – but did not fashion a shot on target against a determined defence. The dubious quality of Alexander-Arnold’s and Robertson’s crossing was also a factor as well as a rarity. The visitors’ first real chance came from a miskick by Jan Oblak straight to Mohamed Salah. The Egypt international exchanged passes with Roberto Firmino before scoring into an unguarded net but the Brazilian was clearly offside when receiving the initial ball and the equaliser was disallowed. Robertson shot wide from 20 yards with his right foot as Liverpool resorted to trying their luck from distance.

Sadio Mané, booked moments before the break after a tussle with Sime Vrsaljko, failed to reappear for the second half as Klopp introduced Divock Origi into an arena he will always cherish. Simeone made an interval switch too, replacing Thomas Lemar with Marcos Llorente, and the Atlético substitute almost made an immediate impact when breaking to the byline and creating an excellent chance for Vrsaljko. The right-back was unmarked, Llorente’s assist was inviting, but the ball somehow squirmed under the defender’s foot and Liverpool were reprieved.

Salah was close to punishing the miss when he ghosted in between Vrsaljko and Stefan Savic to connect with an excellent Joe Gomez cross. He found power with a header but not accuracy and the effort flew wide of Oblak’s right-hand post.

Liverpool played with greater belief in the second half but Atlético defended superbly, a fact that will not be lost on Klopp when he plans for the return . His task would have been more complicated had Morata not missed a glorious chance to extend the home side’s advantage when teed up by the excellent Lodi. The striker was perfectly placed for the left-back’s cross but lost his footing as he shaped to shoot. Lodi did go close with a long-range drive that sailed wide of Alisson’s top corner while Jordan Henderson almost levelled with an awkward volley inches past Oblak’s post.