Liverpool 2 Atletico Madrid 3 (Atletico win 4-2 on aggregate)
Beware the Atlético Madrid sucker punch. Liverpool knew that it was a possibility, however much they controlled this tumultuous Champions League tie, however much they dominated in terms of possession and chances. While the margins remained slim, it could happen.
It almost came at the end of normal time when Trent Alexander-Arnold conceded a needless free-kick – to Jürgen Klopp’s immense irritation – and the unmarked Saúl Ñíguez headed Renan Lodi’s delivery past Adrián. The Atlético celebrations ignited like a firecracker only to fade upon the sight of a flag for offside against Saúl.
Liverpool ought to have won this game several times over. They attacked in waves, battering Atlético, testing their resilience to the limit. The most influential player on the pitch was the visiting goalkeeper, Jan Oblak, who made a string of excellent saves. Klopp's team also blew fistfuls of chances, none more gilt-edged than the 67th-minute header that Andy Robertson crashed against the crossbar when gloriously placed.
Liverpool had led through Gini Wijnaldum's header at the end of the first half of normal time and, early in the extra period, they finally got the goal that put them in front on aggregate. Wijnaldum was the creator, powered up the right side to cross for Roberto Firmino, whose header hit the inside of the post. When the ball rebounded to him, he steered it into the other corner.
Job done? Not at all. Beware the Atlético sucker punch. It came when Adrián accepted a backpass from Alexander-Arnold and shanked his clearance low and straight to João Felix, who moved it straight to the substitute, Marcos Llorente.
The midfielder, who joined last summer from Real Madrid, is not noted for his goalscoring prowess but nobody would have known it. He took one touch to set himself before banging low into the bottom corner. Adrián was extremely slow to get across.
Llorente was not finished. At the end of the first period of extra time, he took a pass from another substitute, Álvaro Morata, as Atlético broke and, with Liverpool players backing off, he repeated the trick. Touch, shot, goal. Again, Adrián was nowhere near to the shot and it was easy to imagine that Oblak or, more pertinently, Alisson – Liverpool’s injured No 1 – would have done better. Liverpool were broken and Morata rubbed salt into their wounds by running through at the very end to score a third for Atlético on the night.
And so Liverpool experienced a home reverse for the first time in 18 months. They tasted a European knock-out tie defeat under Klopp for the first time. And, most gallingly, they felt their grip loosen on the Champions League trophy they won last May. They are set to secure a first league title since 1990 in the coming days or weeks and, in time, that will feel like the biggest deal of a phenomenal season. Here, there was only frustration.
Klopp's preference of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to Fabinho in the starting midfield had reflected his determination to get onto the front foot and it really was a beautifully balanced tie at kick-off because everybody knew that Atlético had the ability to threaten the away goal. It took them just 14 seconds to demonstrate how they might get it, with João Felix playing in Diego Costa, who dragged wide from an angle on the right. They would regularly look for that slide-rule pass in behind the Liverpool defence.
Atlético set up in their usual 4-4-2, with Felix working up front with Costa, and their midfielders clogging up the centre. They did not want to press high at the outset; rather they were happy for Liverpool to come to them with the ball. The question they posed was simple and predictable: can you break us down?
Liverpool had to keep the back door bolted or, to quote Klopp, “protect like never before in our life” – as they did against Barcelona here last season. But the onus was plainly on them to make the game in an attacking sense and they built up gradually to Wijnaldum’s goal which levelled the tie on aggregate just before half-time.
Wijnaldum had an early headed sighter and Oblak was extended more and more as the first-half wore on. The Atlético goalkeeper saved smartly from Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sadio Mané while he showed good reactions to beat away an Alexander-Arnold cross that came through a crowd. In between times, Mané saw a header blocked by Lodi.
Liverpool had been incensed by perceived Atlético gamesmanship in the first leg and there were moments once again when they felt that their opponents went to ground too easily. Felix was one offender and Jordan Henderson felt that he had reason to reproach Ángel Correa, too. Passions swirled and Alexander-Arnold enjoyed putting a little extra into a shuddering challenge on Felix.
Atlético created little before the interval – Felipe did glance wide at the near post from a Koke corner – and Liverpool merited the breakthrough goal, which followed Mohamed Salah’s pass to Oxlade-Chamberlain and an excellent cross dug out from him towards the byline. Wijnaldum held his run by the penalty spot and he summoned tremendous power and accuracy in his header, which bounced down and seemed to pick up speed off the turf on its way past Oblak.
Atlético dug in as previous Diego Simeone vintages have done and, while Oblak continued to press his claim as Europe's No 1 shot-stopper, it was possible to feel that anything could happen. Oblak's save to keep out a low Oxlade-Chamberlain effort from distance on 54 minutes, snaking out a long arm to tip away, was of the highest order, while his presence seemed to spook Firmino at the far post following a whipped Alexander-Arnold delivery.
Liverpool were in control but Atlético knew that it might take only one chance on the break to put themselves in control. Felix did work Adrián and the goalkeeper had to be brave to reach the loose ball ahead of Correa. Klopp’s team pressed on and only Robertson knows how he did not score the second in the 67th minute after Salah’s deflected shot looped up to him. His header came back off the crossbar when he appeared ready to celebrate.
There was more. Oblak kept out an Alexander-Arnold rocket, Robertson shot wastefully, Mané was high with an overhead kick and Salah shot off-target. Saúl thought he had won it in normal time, but there was to be no denying Atlético in the extra period.