Leaky defence tempers Liverpool’s joy as Virgil van Dijk shows rustiness
Thankfully there are only 15 days to wait until Liverpool meet their Champions League irritant once again. The emotions, the anger and the lessons from a pulsating encounter with Atlético Madrid are unlikely to have been forgotten when Jürgen Klopp and Diego Simeone renew what is becoming more than simply a clash of styles.
Atlético will arrive at Anfield on 3 November aggrieved at the major decisions that went against them at the Wanda Metropolitano and contributed to only their second home defeat in 32 European ties. Liverpool will find motivation in the prospect of winning a supposedly complex group with two games to spare should they inflict another blow on the Spanish champions.
There will be personal needle too. Klopp was angered by Simeone ignoring his offer of a handshake on the final whistle and choosing to sprint straight down the tunnel instead. He departed with a sarcastic wave from the Liverpool manager. Virgil van Dijk received a kick to the heels from Luis Suárez after the whistle had been blown for a free-kick. The Liverpool defender gave a little back when clattering into Suárez as they leapt for a high ball moments later. Suárez’s prolonged protests at Van Dijk escaping any punishment saw him booked for dissent.
There will be scores to settle next time out, you suspect, and undoubtedly lessons to be learned. This was ultimately a joyous night for Liverpool and Klopp, beating Spanish opposition on home soil for the first time as the club’s manager, and another demonstration of the power of Mohamed Salah.
But a fraught night for Liverpool’s defenders cannot, and will not, be overlooked.
It looked so comfortable in the opening 15 minutes, strangely so against an Atlético side admired and disliked in equal measure for their defensive approach. Van Dijk and Joël Matip picked passes under non-existent pressure as the hosts sat deep, while Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold instigated countless raids and provided the source for Liverpool’s two early goals.
The defensive unit that held Tottenham at bay and underpinned Liverpool’s Champions League triumph at this stadium in 2019 was back in the usual routine. And then it started to creak. Klopp seemed alert to Atlético’s offensive improvement before his players were, and was typically expressive in letting his feelings known.
Simeone had gone for a more mobile attack than might have been expected in João Félix and Antoine Griezmann. Suárez, leading goalscorer when Atlético won the league last season, started on the bench against his former club. The Uruguayan offers more menace than mobility, although he was also among those who reported back late last week from international duty in South America.
Félix and Thomas Lemar began to find gaps between Alexander‑Arnold and Matip. Klopp’s appeals for them to get tighter and for better protection went unheeded. No blame could be attached to Liverpool’s defenders for the first Griezmann goal that revived a passionate home crowd, although Naby Keïta offered little resistance as Lemar skipped past him from a short corner to set up Koke for the shot that the on-loan forward turned in.
Keïta was also beaten easily by Félix in the buildup to Griezmann’s second, and was replaced at the interval for the more defensively reassuring presence of Fabinho. Liverpool’s defence could not escape blame for Atlético’s equaliser, however, a goal that sent Simeone scarpering down the touchline in wild celebration.
Van Dijk was completely unaware of Griezmann’s movement as Félix polished his fine run with a penetrating pass into the heart of Liverpool’s area. By the time he located the forward in his periphery, it was too late. Griezmann breezed past the Netherlands captain to convert.
Van Dijk, who admitted prior to the game that there is room for improvement from him following the ACL injury he sustained 12 months ago, also lost Griezmann minutes earlier. The striker timed a run from inside his own half to perfection to latch on to Rodrigo De Paul’s long ball, only to be denied by Alisson in the resulting one-on-one. Alisson produced further valuable stops from Lemar, Félix and Yannick Carrasco, but almost gifted Griezmann a hat-trick when smacking a careless clearance into Matip’s midriff. Fortunately for the Liverpool goalkeeper the rebound fell into his path and not the unmarked striker lurking in front of an unguarded net.
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It was an incident-packed, engrossing contest between two outstanding teams but, defensively, Liverpool needed respite. Fabinho came on to provide it, but Griezmann beat him to the job, raising a boot high into Roberto Firmino’s ear and receiving a straight red card from the German referee as a consequence.
Even with 10 men Atlético were able to attack dangerously and unnerve Liverpool, only for Mario Hermoso’s foolish foul on Diogo Jota to provide Salah with the decisive goal from the penalty spot. Liverpool’s defenders were indebted to the brilliant Egypt international for victory on a breathless night.