There are plenty of reasons for Liverpool to believe that they can turn their Champions League last-16 tie around tonight. Jurgen Klopp and his players only trail by a single goal. Scoring early – like against Barcelona in last year’s semi-final – would radically change the tie’s dynamic. And yes, on ‘great European nights’ like these, the noise, mystique and mythology of Anfield can cause any away team to collapse. The cliché is a cliché because it is true.
Atletico Madrid, however, have a certain mythology of their own. Of the 26 first-leg leads Diego Simeone’s side have established during his eight years in charge, they have defended 25 of them, progressing to the next round on all but one occasion. Spanning the Champions League, Europa League and domestic Copa del Rey, it is a remarkable statistic – perhaps the best at illustrating what a formidable opponent they are in any knock-out format – and it demonstrates the true scale of Liverpool’s task.
“We played against probably the world’s best at deep defending,” Klopp admitted on Tuesday afternoon, thinking back to the first leg. “Getting a 0-0 would have been a brilliant result but wouldn’t have made it easier because we still have to score. The challenge was always clear from the first moment, one of the biggest in football. They don’t go out with the white flag. We have to produce a performance on the pitch that has to be exceptional in all departments.”
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When breaking down Simeone’s 26 attempts to defend a first-leg lead, patterns emerge. Liverpool, for example, will almost certainly see the majority of the ball. Atletico averaged around 45% possession in those 26 games, though that dropped to only 40% in the Champions League. For the 2016 semi-final away against a Pep Guardiola-managed Bayern Munich, they gave up three-quarters of the ball, lost 2-1 on the night and yet still progressed on away goals.
Atletico tend to be out-shot in these games too, with an average of nine attempts on goal compared to 10 attempts conceded. Again, this changes when only looking at Champions League ties, when Atletico typically have half as many shots as their opponents. None of this is particularly surprising. Simeone’s famed cholismo philosophy is conservative at the best of times. In these situations, when Atletico already have something to hold onto, it is about defending rather than extending a lead.
How is it, then, that Atletico often out-score their opponents too? Simeone won more than half of those 26 second legs, by an average scoreline of 2-1. Take European games alone and that record becomes seven wins in 12 while the average scoreline remains the same. Liverpool need to score two goals to progress inside 90 minutes tonight. Atletico have conceded two goals or more in only twice in those 12 European games, only failing to respond once.
Admittedly, those numbers take a significant hit when you raise the stakes and only consider Champions League games. Control for that and Simeone has won just one of the five second legs which he has started with a lead. But the point is not to win on the night. The point is to get the job done. The essence of cholismo is utilitarian. What matters is progressing to the next round and, by hook or by crook, Atletico usually do.
Usually, that is. Liverpool’s greatest hope of prising this tie knock-out tie out of Simeone’s hands may be hidden in that solitary occasion when Atletico surrendered. It was a year ago tomorrow, at the Allianz Stadium, when a 2-0 first-leg lead and a long-established reputation as the world’s finest practitioners of defensive football made Atletico comfortable favourites to progress past Juventus into the Champions League last eight and move within four games of a final at their own stadium.
And yet once Cristiano Ronaldo had scored first goal just before the half-hour mark, as he added a second shortly after the break, right up to his decisive third in the game’s dying embers, Atletico looked powerless to prevent their elimination. They leant back on their reputation for defending a lead and fell through the bar, then found themselves unable to respond to their gradual collapse by coming out and playing any other way. It was only the fourth time in Champions League history that a side had won a home first-leg 2-0 and yet failed to progress to the next round.
It was also the most recent of those 26 attempts at defending a first-leg lead, and that matters because this is not the same Atletico which won La Liga and reached two Champions League finals in the space of two years. There is no Antoine Griezmann anymore but – more importantly – none of that old core: no Gabi, no Juanfran and no Diego Godin either. Instead there is Joao Felix, Thomas Lemar, Alvaro Morata and Kieran Trippier to name but a few, all talented younger players but a different proposition.
There is still Simeone, at least. Three weeks ago at the Wanda Metropolitano, this new Atletico showed they can play like his one of old, revelling in their uncomplicated status as underdogs against arguably the best side on the continent. They now arrive at Anfield as marginal favourites to progress to the quarter-finals. That sense of expectation could be small enough not to matter, with Simeone’s conservative game plan ultimately coming good, or it could spark uncertainty among a much-changed group of players as it did at Juventus last year. Liverpool must hope for the latter.
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