How much drama can you condense into one Champions League match? Liverpool and Atletico Madrid seem hellbent on cracking that poser, once again squeezing the action of what felt like five encounters into a sole, feverish fixture.
Jurgen Klopp’s side triumphed, winning their opening four games in the competition for the first time. They are group winners, they have qualified for the knockout stages, and they are great entertainers.
By the 36-minute mark at Anfield, there had been two goals from the home side and a straight red for Felipe, which was some plot twist considering Diego Simeone’s men put quite a lot of sweat into getting Sadio Mane sent off, as they had attempted in the reverse fixture. And that was just the start.
Amid a thundering atmosphere, this was very much Netflix – and very much without the chill.
Through the piercing cold, it was impossible not to pause, to rewind to the discomfort and confusion of March 2020. This very fixture at this very ground should not have taken place, allowed to unnecessarily take so many lives as a global pandemic was confirmed, its wreckage reaching far and wide.
Madrid was the epicentre of coronavirus in Spain, with games played behind closed doors and public gatherings of over 1,000 people banned. Yet three times that number of travelling fans made their way here for a match that was allowed to proceed as though we weren’t welcoming unprecedented times.
Prior to kick-off, there were huddles of remembrance for lost loved ones around the periphery of the stadium. They would have enjoyed watching this; those of us in attendance then and now knew we were fortunate to still be here.
Liverpool, with Fabinho returning from injury to offer greater stability, supplied a supreme first half in the face of Atletico’s well-worn dark arts. Right after Rodrigo de Paul woefully overhit a cross, Trent Alexander-Arnold delivered a glorious ball that blitzed across the six-yard box.
It stunned Atleti’s static markers, but was read by Diogo Jota, who happily made its quality count with a header.
Tensions were quickly escalating following the opener. Koke was rash on Mane from behind and the Senegal speeder furiously shoved him away in front of referee Danny Makkelie to earn a booking.
Atleti continued to tactically nibble at the forward to spark a more fiery reaction. Mane responded, but not in the way they wanted. Stationed out on the left, he powered inside leaving a lot of visiting markers stranded before feeding Jordan Henderson. The captain played in Alexander-Arnold, whose low, diagonal ball was flicked first time into the bottom right by Mane.
Liverpool were 2-0 to the good and Atleti badly lost grip. Mane threatened to break, but Felipe took studs to his calf. It was a cynical, deliberate act but no one had expected the ref to whip out a red.
The decision seemed to be made for him when the Brazilian refused to acknowledge Makkelie calling him over for the caution and engaged in dissent.
Luis Suarez, booed at every opportunity, and Koke were also booked soon after as Atleti stuck to their script of trying to get Mane off. Klopp denied them that pleasure by removing him at the break for Roberto Firmino.
Jota had an effort ruled out for offside and missed a sitter while Joel Matip should have scored. Mohamed Salah could have had a collection of goals, but it was Suarez who found the net.
Of course, drama dictated a VAR chalking-off. Jose Gimenez had gone too soon in the build-up and Atleti’s defiance was up in smoke.
The changes came thick and fast, with a concern being Firmino limping off. Jota was booked for an overhead kick that caught Kieran Trippier. It cost substitute Takumi Minamino a goal as he had buried the loose ball into the bottom corner.
And breathe. You’ll no doubt be able to tune in for another episode of this drama soon.
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