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Atletico Madrid edge Liverpool with vintage defensive display in Champions League

Spain midfielder Saul Niguez struck the only goal of the game in the fourth minute by bundling into the net from close range following a corner, their traditional weapon of choice in recent years.

By: Reuters | Madrid | Published: February 19, 2020 9:18:46 am
Atletico Madrid’s Saul Niguez celebrates scoring their first goal with Koke and Alvaro Morata (Source: Reuters)

Champions League holders Liverpool will need to summon another famous European comeback at Anfield next month after they were beaten 1-0 away to Atletico Madrid in their last-16 first leg on Tuesday.

Spain midfielder Saul Niguez struck the only goal of the game in the fourth minute by bundling into the net from close range following a corner, their traditional weapon of choice in recent years.

Liverpool, who have won 25 of 26 Premier League games this season and are on course for a record-smashing title win, missed a series of chances to equalise in the second half, with Mohamed Salah and captain Jordan Henderson coming closest to scoring.

Juergen Klopp’s side play at home to Atletico on March 11 in the return leg at Anfield, where they produced an incredible 4-0 win over Barcelona in last year’s semi-final second leg after losing the first match 3-0.

Atletico’s Wanda Metropolitano stadium was the scene of Liverpool’s 2-0 triumph over Tottenham Hotspur in last year’s final but they faced a very different type of atmosphere this time around.

Clouds of billowing red smoke greeted the Atletico bus when it arrived at the ground as the home supporters stoked up a scorching atmosphere throughout the game to give their side a lift in the middle of their worst season in recent memory.

Diego Simeone’s men have looked nothing like the sides that reached the 2014 and 2016 Champions League finals and challenged Real Madrid and Barcelona’s duopoly of La Liga for most of this campaign. They trail league leaders Real by 13 points.

But on Tuesday they produced a vintage defensive display, sitting deep and barely giving Liverpool any space for their attacking trident of Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane to work their usual magic.

Mane was fortunate not to be sent off late in the first half after clashing with Sime Vrsaljko while on a yellow card and he was swiftly substituted by Klopp for Divock Origi, who scored the second goal in last year’s final.

He caused little disquiet to Atletico’s towering defenders, yet Salah should have levelled with a header which went wide of the near post, while Henderson also narrowly missed the target from inside the area later on.

Klopp hits out at Atletico’s negative play after defeat

Liverpool coach Juergen Klopp railed against Atletico Madrid’s negative tactics and gamesmanship after the holders fell to a 1-0 defeat away from home in a tense Champions League last-16 first leg in the Spanish capital on Tuesday.

Saul Niguez’s scrappy goal in the fourth minute got Atletico off to an ideal start in a fervent atmosphere at the Wanda Metropolitano but Klopp was unhappy with some aspects of Diego Simeone’s side’s play.

“You need to be really strong as a referee in this atmosphere. Already in the first 30 minutes three of their players went to the ground, I don’t know what for,” Klopp told reporters.

“They got a result, the stadium wasn’t here to see sensational football. Atletico were here to squeeze a result out of this game, they got the result and so they are happy and we are not that happy.”

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The biggest flashpoint of a fiery game saw Atletico loudly appeal for Liverpool forward Sadio Mane to be sent off for a second clash with Sime Vrsaljko after being booked for an earlier incident with the Croatian.

Klopp substituted the Senegal international immediately after the interval.

“The plan today was to get Sadio out of the game with a yellow card, I was a bit afraid that his opponent would go down if Sadio only takes a deep breath or whatever,” added Klopp, who was himself given a booking for protesting on the sidelines.

“I didn’t want to have that situation and that’s why I took him off. He was targeted. It was clear. It’s part of football but I don’t like it.”

The German coach has overseen a number of inspiring second-leg comebacks in European matches at Anfield and warned Atletico what awaited them on Merseyside next month.

“As long as we can get 11 players in a Liverpool shirt we will try with all we have. For all Atletico fans who have got a ticket, welcome to Anfield,” he added.

“It’s halftime, we’re 1-0 down, we wouldn’t give up if we had 15 minutes of half time so why should we when we have three weeks, and even better, the second half will be played in our stadium.”

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