Group of Death? Liverpool cruise into Champions League last 16 after seeing off Atletico’s 10 angry men
So much for the Group of Death, eh?
Liverpool are into the last 16 of the Champions League for the fifth year in a row, and in pretty impressive fashion too.
Jurgen Klopp’s side, perhaps stung by their weekend collapse against Brighton, simply swept Atletico Madrid away at Anfield on Wednesday night, their 2-0 win securing top spot in Group B with two games to spare.
First-half goals from Diogo Jota and Sadio Mane did the damage for the Reds, with Atletico, as they were in the reverse fixture a fortnight ago, reduced to a team of 10 angry men.
It was Antoine Griezmann in Madrid, and this time Felipe was the guilty party. The Brazilian defender was shown a straight red card for a foul on Mane 10 minutes before the break, all-but-ending his side’s chances of a comeback.
And to think there were some who panicked when the draw was made back in August. With Liverpool paired not only with Atletico, but also AC Milan and Porto, the fear was that progress would be a struggle.
“It wasn’t the draw we’d have picked,” Klopp even admitted. His side have made light work of it in the end.
Sure, they had to come from behind against Milan on matchday one, and they were forced to dig deep in Madrid last month, but this has been a display of real power from Liverpool. Four games, four wins, 13 goals scored; thank you and goodnight.
Their reward, one imagines, will be the chance to rest and rotate their squad during those final two matches, at home to Porto and away in Milan.
With fixtures coming thick and fast this month and next, the opportunity to wrap the likes of Mane, Mohamed Salah, Virgil van Dijk, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Fabinho in cotton wool simply cannot be ignored.
Injuries remain Klopp’s biggest concern, the thing most likely to scupper his team’s chances of success this season. The next six to eight weeks must be negotiated with extreme care. The sight of Roberto Firmino walking off in the second half, then, represents a major worry.
The Brazilian had only come on at half-time, replacing Mane, but lasted just 33 minutes before being forced off. Firmino headed straight for the tunnel, and must at the very least be a doubt for Sunday’s Premier League trip to West Ham.
There was better news for Klopp in midfield, where both Fabinho and Thiago Alcantara were able to return to action. Fabinho started the game, and Liverpool looked all the better for his presence, aggression and composure in the centre of the park.
Composure was one thing which seemed to desert Atletico, particularly during a raucous opening 45 minutes. Diego Simeone’s side have spoiled the party at Anfield before, but they looked overwhelmed at times here, unable to find answers to the myriad questions posed by Klopp’s men.
Just as in Madrid, Liverpool led by two early, Jota on hand to head home inside 13 minutes and Mane pouncing to slide in a second after 21.
On both occasions, the assist went to Alexander-Arnold – the first time he has set two goals up in a game since February 2020.
Mane, meanwhile, now sits third time on the list of all-time European goalscorers at Liverpool, below only Salah and Steven Gerrard. The Senegal star will be frustrated that he was substituted at half-time, just as he had been against Atletico in 2020, but Klopp’s decision was a smart one.
After Felipe’s dismissal, Simeone’s side looked determined to make sure that Mane, who had been harshly booked early on, went for an early bath too.
And so Liverpool went on without him, looking to negotiate the second-half painlessly. Firmino’s injury ensured they didn’t, while Jota had a goal ruled out for offside, denying Joel Matip a brilliant assist in the process.
He wasn’t the only one frustrated by the VAR, mind. Luis Suarez, the former Reds striker, thought he had pinched a goal back for Atleti with a deflected volley, 11 minutes into the second half, only to see it chalked off, much to the home fans’ delight.
Suarez was substituted soon after, receiving a mix of boos and cheers from the supporters who once adored him. He responded to neither.
There was a hug for Jordan Henderson, his old Anfield team-mate, at the final whistle, but little else by way of emotion or acknowledgement. He looked beaten.
Liverpool can do that to you. They may not be firing on all cylinders just yet, but they’re undefeated in the Premier League and have just flown through a tough-as-teak Champions League group.
If they can keep their stars fit, they’ll take some stopping – but then you already knew that, didn’t you?