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Klopp's bid to keep Euro crown hits the wall in Madrid

Niguez gives stubborn Simeone crucial edge

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Atletico Madrid’s Sime Vrsaljko battles for possession with Sadio Mane of Liverpool during their Champions League last 16 clash last night. Photo: Getty Images

Atletico Madrid’s Sime Vrsaljko battles for possession with Sadio Mane of Liverpool during their Champions League last 16 clash last night. Photo: Getty Images

Getty Images

Atletico Madrid’s Sime Vrsaljko battles for possession with Sadio Mane of Liverpool during their Champions League last 16 clash last night. Photo: Getty Images

The cussedness is what marks out Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid, a solemn determination to deny opposition the chance to do what they do best, and so they will take that doctrine to Anfield in three weeks' time to see if it works in a stadium famous for its capacity to overturn the odds.

If this night was anything to forecast the second leg by, then one might expect Simeone's team to defend the first row of car-parking spaces in Stanley Park when they find themselves under pressure.

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Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone gestures on the touchline. Photo: PA

Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone gestures on the touchline. Photo: PA

PA

Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone gestures on the touchline. Photo: PA

They struck early in this first leg, within four minutes, through their great home-grown No 8 Saul Niguez, a man for all seasons, the most common of which this time was organising a midfield that did its best to deny, block and break up the rhythms of this Liverpool side.

This was the first defeat for the full-strength European champions version of Jurgen Klopp's team since they went down to Napoli in the group stage on September 17, and by the end even their manager, on a 17-game Premier League winning run, had lost his cool. Klopp was booked in the closing stages for his constant haranguing of the fourth official.

If they are to defend their title then they will have to rely on another Anfield comeback, although this is a different kind of challenge.

Against Barcelona in the semi-final second leg last year they faced an opponent who fancied themselves to win any game by means of control.

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Liverpool's Mohamed Salah battles for possession with Atletico Madrid's Renan Lodi. Photo: Reuters

Liverpool's Mohamed Salah battles for possession with Atletico Madrid's Renan Lodi. Photo: Reuters

REUTERS

Liverpool's Mohamed Salah battles for possession with Atletico Madrid's Renan Lodi. Photo: Reuters

Atletico have no interest in the ball for the vast majority of the time, the few seconds that they prefer to have possession is when the opposition slip out of shape and a chance presents itself.

Klopp substituted Sadio Mane at half-time after the striker picked up a booking, and by the end his Liverpool side had not managed a single shot or header on the Atletico goal.

Not since Raul Jimenez's 51st-minute header for Wolverhampton Wanderers at Molineux on January 23 had a senior Liverpool first XI - discounting the U-23s who contested the FA Cup fourth round - conceded a goal and, prior to that, they had kept seven straight shutouts in all competitions.

Decisive

This goal came before Klopp's side had found their bearings against a home side who looked like they had been waiting for this game all season. An Atletico attack caught Liverpool on the back foot and the home team won a corner. Koke struck it into the centre and there was no decisive action from the Liverpool defenders, a deflection off Fabinho's boot and Saul tidying up with the finish.

Within minutes the game was being slowed by Atletico. Trent Alexander-Arnold appealed to the fourth official in vain for the ball boys to return the ball quicker. There were appeals for treatment at the slightest collision, From his spot on the touchline, Klopp looked across at Simeone, the subject of his tribute the night before, and no doubt wondered how he had forgotten just how irritating the man they call El Cholo can be.

Irritating, or inspirational, depending on how you view it. Simeone had Liverpool where he wanted and insisted that everything be sacrificed to the cause of keeping them out. Liverpool pressed when they could, but the reality was that part of the game was largely redundant against an opponent who had only 25 per cent of first-half possession.

Just as worrying for Klopp was that his side's incisive passing and movement was not creating the openings that it has against the 19 other sides in the Premier League.

The closest Liverpool came in the first half to the Atletico goal was when Mohamed Salah's shot was deflected over by Felipe Augusto.

For all that, Atletico had the more attempts on goal in the first half and the best of them after their goal came from a mistake by Virgil van Dijk that let Alvaro Morata in down the left side. But as soon as the former Chelsea man came inside on his right, Alisson had a fair idea of where it was going and managed to get a foot behind it.

There were to be no chances taken by Klopp as far as Mane was concerned, his best player booked after a tackle on Sime Vrsaljko and from then on a potential risk against an opponent which tends not to forget who might be vulnerable to a second booking. He was replaced at by Divock Origi, whose involvements would have been discouraging for Klopp.

In itself it was a small victory for Atletico. They had seen off Mane's threat and now they did what they could with the rest. Salah came closest to that first attempt on target with a header after 53 minutes from Joe Gomez's cross, but he could not sneak it inside Jan Oblak's post.

Salah was the next to be summoned to the touchline with less than 20 minutes left, the Egyptian having been well handled by full-back Renan Lodi. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came on in Salah's place as a right-winger and yet, with the end in sight, it was the home team who grew in belief.

Morata fell over when he had a chance to bury a cutback, and he was later replaced by Diego Costa to a great roar of approval when he came on from the home crowd. Where were the chances for Liverpool?

Jordan Henderson clipped a cross from Origi wide and then later the Liverpool captain came off injured. Liverpool barely created a chance in those closing stages and that usual certainty had been eroded.

© Daily Telegraph, London

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