Just like Marcos Llorente’s fateful long shot, another trophy slips through Liverpool’s fingers.
They went out of the Champions League to Atletico Madrid after a 3-2 defeat that for so long seemed set up for one of those storied Anfield nights, only to become the story of two goalkeepers. Jan Oblak kept everything that mattered out, Adrian let pretty much every dangerous effort in.
Alisson Becker’s injury looks to have been especially timely for Liverpool, and may well have cost them the chance at an even more historic season than a record title win – if it actually finishes.
This was far from Adrian’s first error for the club, but it may well be the last football here in front of fans for some time, and maybe the last Champions League action for the season.
Atletico’s fulsome celebrations on the pitch were undercut by the news emerging at the same time off it that Juventus’ Daniele Rugani had tested positive for COVID-19. With Serie A suspended and the Italian side’s second leg against Lyon already having been scheduled to take place behind closed doors, it may well not take place at all.
That is now the real danger. That may now be the real shame for a defiantly defensive Atletico. They could well be denied the chance at their own Holy Gail, given the meaning of this competition for them in Diego Simeone’s side, and how they’d lost two finals to Real Madrid.
They may never get a better chance to win it. They may never get to try take that chance. And after all this effort. Because effort it really was, especially from Oblak.
A fair argument has been that Liverpool haven’t really been as good over the last few weeks, but that simply wasn’t an option here. They had to be back at full force, all out attack, in order to have any chance of breaking this wall down.
There were long stretches where it wasn’t so much a football match, but an indistinguishable blur of defensive headers eight yards from the Altetico goal. Stefan Savic and Felipe, of course, were generally responsible for most of them. There was a vintage vignette around 38 minutes into the first half when a corner was just inviting Virgil van Dijk to power it in only for Felipe to appear and clear.
On the rare occasions when the ball got beyond that defensive wall, then, there was the rock of Oblak.
He was as sturdy as ever, plucking a Georginio Wijnaldum header out of the air one minute, battering away a deceptive Trent Alexander-Arnold cross the next. It was in the latter moments, though, that he really showed his quality.
On the many occasions when the ball came back out, there was always then an Atletico player to snipe away its landing, just causing that bit more disruption for Liverpool.
A further issue was that, from an attacking perspective, the pattern of the game arguably suited the visitors. They did not face the problem of having to proactively create. They were merely primed to break whenever possible. This is what won them the tie, with a sucker-punch.
This is also what initially cost them. Atletico were actually probably a touch more attacking than you’d expect, and it was from one of the counters – when they weren’t quite as defensively organised as they might have been – that Liverpool struck.
The two centre-halves were preoccupied with the forwards, and there was Wijnaldum free to claim another big goal.
It was a classic case of a midfielder arriving late in the box, and a classic case of this Liverpool being able to literally overrun teams.
They thereby only amped that up, soon setting the pattern of the game, despite parity in the scoreline and the threat of an away goal. That didn’t weigh Liverpool down. It seemed to only fire them further, as if realising the best way to prevent was to try and pen Atletico even further back, to now allow them out at all.
That was only further tempered by the initial occasions in the second half when Atletico did try and come out. It quickly gave up the type of space that Liverpool’s speed was set up to exploit, such as when Mohamed Salah turned Renan Lodi, only for his shot to break and then see Andy Robertson hit the bar.
The ball was then hacked with the kind of defiant vigour you really only see in games like this, where everyone realises any single moment can be definitive.
The entire game, meanwhile had become enthrallingly intense in that wondrous way the Champions League now specialises in.
It was tantalisingly close attacks – like Salah’s shot just over – against desperate last-stand clearances. That’s what it really was coming down to, and going to extra-time.
Liverpool’s Champions League season did flash before their eyes in the final minute of normal time, as Saul Niguez plundered a brilliant header – but he was flagged offside.
It didn’t disrupt the pattern of the game though. It was still Liverpool pushing and pushing, Atletico standing and standing. Something eventually had to give, and it was first the Spanish side’s backline. Another one of those crosses and Oblak saves was too many, as a Firmino header rebounded back for him to tap into an open goal.
That’s the potential price when you’re so pragmatic, and all-out defence. The risk is always that one defended ball just falls the wrong way once. That’s also the risk when your first-choice goalkeeper is out.
Anfield was rocking, and Liverpool seemingly surging only for Adrian to just drop one. As Llorente hit the most hopeful of long shots, the stand-in keeper was seemingly suspended in mid-air for the ball to just fly past it.
That was the second thing to give, and the most important thing: Adrian’s grip.
Llorente had clearly found his range and Liverpool’s weakness, as he repeated the trick moments later, before Alvaro Morata completed the victory with the last kick of the match.
Atletico celebrated as if they’d won the final, but the irony could be that this is the final Champions League action for some time. It was pretty much at that exact moment that Rugani’s positive test was announced by Juventus.
Simeone’s side couldn’t let themselves think about that, though. Oblak barely let anything that mattered through. It was a different story at the other end, but maybe also a different ending to the season than many – especially at Liverpool – had anticipated.
More information: INDEPENDENT.