So much for the “group of death.” Admittedly, I was right there with everyone else when looking at our draw. Atletico Madrid was popularly considered the worst of the Pot 1 draws that we were eligible for, Porto was thought to be second to Leipzig in terms of Pot 2 (oops), and Milan was easily the most challenging side of Pot 4. And yet, here we are after four matches with max points and already qualified for the knockout rounds, with two testy games vs Atleti and Milan, a rout of Porto, and sheer domination of Atleti in the return trip. Granted, this was not Madrid at its best, given that two players were suspended by cards, including Antoine Griezmann, and they’ve suffered a number of other injuries, as well. But even though this match was marred by yet another red card 35 minutes in, for 33 of the preceding minutes, the game was utterly dominated by Liverpool and the scoreline reflected that. Indeed, we inflicted what is often thought of as the ultimate indignity, turning most of the last hour of the match into one long training rondo, keeping possession and basically shutting the game down. We did get a couple looks and Jan Oblak made a couple of the kind of amazing saves that have made his deserved reputation. Similarly, Atleti got loose a couple times and former Red, Luis Suarez, even turned in a deflected goal off Joel Matip, only to have it swept away by VAR as offside but the result was really never in doubt once we’d established the lead.
A lot will be made of the officiating, including VAR, as Diogo Jota had a second goal taken away for that same reason on the narrowest of offside calls. (Let me reiterate my stance that the offside rule should be changed such that if any part of the attacker’s body (not limbs) is in line with the defense, it’s not offside.) But that’s only acknowledging the hole that Atleti dug for themselves, by constantly hacking at particular players, especially Sadio Mané, and then being defiant of lead official, Danny Makkelie, when he eventually called them on it. No, you wouldn’t normally expect to see a straight red card issued to Felipe Monteiro for blatantly kicking through a player’s legs in their offensive third. It’s an obvious yellow card foul and one that should be called more often. But it’s still not a denial of a goalscoring opportunity or a move that showed particular recklessness. But when you combine that with refusing to heed Makkelie’s instructions- not once, not twice, but three times -then, yeah, you’re going to encourage a reaction from an official who’s not particularly known for game-changing calls. But this one was absolutely deserved. The official is in charge of the game. If you keep flouting his authority, he’s going to exercise it. This was Atleti at their most Simeone-ness; fouling, whining, and behaving like obstinate children. The unusual part about it is that they probably have the most talented squad in the Spanish league at the moment, so they don’t have to practice the dark arts to get past their nearest neighbors or the Catalan giants. But once you develop habits, it’s really hard to break them.
One of the habits we’ve gotten into has been treating every game the same way. We do our thing and they try to stop us. Outside of a few irritating draws, no one has succeeded so far and our record in this year’s Champions League remains 100%, with 12 points out of 12. It’s also the first time we’ve won our first four group matches since the competition changed to the CL format. That consistency now extends back through last season and now places this squad with one of Bob Paisley’s giants, 1982-83, as holding the record for the longest undefeated streak across all competitions: 25. That group won a league title and a League Cup. This one can do better. Despite legendary names of that squad like Bruce Grobelaar, Alan Hansen, Phil Neal, Alan Kennedy, Terry McDermott, Graeme Souness, Stevie Nicol, Ian Rush, and Sir Kenny Dalglish, this squad has more talent. This squad has more depth. Even with the injury problems we’ve run into in the midfield, we can reasonably make a stab at a treble this year, just as we’ve been able to for the previous three years. This is the machine that Jürgen Klopp, Michael Edwards, and FSG have built. This is the club that we’d all hoped for since the glory days of the 80s and have now watched develop and win for six years. This is the club contesting all the power estimation rankings with Bayern Munich for the top two spots as the strongest club in Europe and as favorites for the European Cup. This is the club that’s among the first qualifiers for the next round, alongside Bayern, Juventus, and Ajax. And we did it out of the “group of death” and in four matches that we were largely in control of throughout. A lot of people are suggesting that we can rotate heavily for the final two matches, but I say why not keep the momentum going and also win another €5.6 million? That Mo Salah contract ain’t gonna pay for itself. We’re done with death. Now’s the time to keep rolling.
Liverpool 2 – 0 Atletico Madrid
Yes, that’s a .37 xG for the rojiblancos. That’s what happens when you don’t get a shot on target for the whole match. There wasn’t anything tactically novel about this match on either side, with Atleti in their 3-4-2-1 and Liverpool making five changes to the 4-3-3 from the draw against Brighton. Fabinho was the most favorable return and he immediately paid dividends, allowing Captain Jordan Henderson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to rove forward with abandon. But Joel also returned and once again looked like Virgil Van Dijk’s best match among our centerback pairings. Andy Robertson took a breather for the first time since the early part of this season and, once again, Kostas Tsimikas looked like a perfectly capable replacement. He still lacks the burst and menace of Robbo, but he makes up for it with his precision and slightly better touch on some of his long passes and corner kicks. He’s the standout performer when it comes to assessing our overall depth, for certain. Roberto Firmino was given a rest, too, but came on in the second half to keep Sadio from picking up a second yellow from Madrid hacking away at him. The downside of that is that Bob is now out with a hamstring problem and whom is precisely not the player we want to lose heading into the most trying period of the year, even with another dreaded international break on the horizon that may make it a shorter absence than usual. But let’s talk about positives.
Some of these numbers are going to be accelerated by Atleti being down to 10 men again for the last hour, but those are still insane stats for a fullback. Diogo was handed the MotM by UEFA, but I have a hard time understanding how it wasn’t Trent. Opta even called him Trent AA to point out his two assists for the match (the first time he’s done that in the CL.) We can still regularly remind people that he’s a defender. His completed passes, chances created, assists, and total touches were best in game; tackles were (tied for) best for LFC and interceptions second-best for the Reds. That’s also 50 career assists. But we can’t leave out
There are a lot of questions about Ox. I’ve been one of those posing them. But he really turned up today and contributed in a major way, even before it became an 11v10 training exercise. Given the MASH unit that is our midfield at the moment (and the loss of Bob), this kind of performance is something we’ll really need going forward. If Ox can finally make it back to even close to his 2017-18 level, that would go a long way toward pushing us toward that potential treble. Getting Thiago Alcãntara back in form would be another big step in that direction. He looked… decent tonight, but the rust was obvious. In that positive vein, though, both Divock Origi and Takumi Minamino looked like they were still carrying their solid form from the League Cup match. It was unfortunate that a high boot by Diogo wiped out what would’ve been another CL goal by Taki. Just a final note, we also can’t ignore the tremendous contribution of much-maligned (by Atleti) Sadio, who did great work. His goal was almost purely his contribution, as not only dug the ball out from two defenders, but sent it to Hendo and then kept moving toward the box to receive Trent’s perfect pass. So, yeah, positive vibes (Ole!) throughout, which is a good sign coming into our next match…
… against top 4(!) West Ham at Taxpayer Boondoggle Stadium. Regular LFC journalist Simon Hughes mentioned before this match that Diego Simeone always looks like a porn star who showed up at a funeral. This weekend, we get to visit the actual porn kings and hopefully come away with another three points to stay on Chelsea’s (ahem) tail.