LIVERPOOL, England — Liverpool were determined to ensure it was going to be different this time.
Atletico Madrid‘s last visit to Anfield in March 2020 was a calamitous affair on and off the field. The Reds blew a two-goal lead to crash out in extra-time of a last-16 tie that many felt should never have been played due to the rising coronavirus cases then engulfing Spain, Jurgen Klopp among them. It was the last match to be played in England before a national lockdown and football’s three-month hiatus.
Upon the resumption in June, matches were staged behind closed doors which saw Liverpool claim their first Premier League title in 30 years in an empty Anfield before small numbers of supporters returned to witness a late scramble for a top-four finish last season.
The denial of celebrating such a landmark moment with the club’s fanbase still drives Klopp to prime everyone around him for nights like Tuesday’s 2-0 win. And Atletico’s return, with ex-Liverpool striker Luis Suarez among the Spanish side’s ranks, sharpened minds still further.
Diego Simeone’s side was typically combative and disruptive, players falling cheaply to the ground and others contesting every decision with extreme exasperation regardless of the incident’s severity.
Nobody encapsulated Liverpool’s resolute determination better than Sadio Mane. He was substituted at half-time as a precaution when these teams met last year and the same fate befell him again — except this time he had already turned the match irrevocably in Liverpool’s favour.
Atletico targeted Mane from the kick-off and he was booked after 15 minutes having reacted to a tackle by Rodrigo De Paul, by which point he had already been on the receiving end of several rough challenges and beginning to get riled. Yet a passage of play six minutes later exemplified why tonight would indeed be different.
Konstantinos Tsimikas, selected at left-back ahead of Andrew Robertson, took a throw-in down the line to Diogo Jota. He flicked it around the corner to Mane, who was immediately set upon by Koke and De Paul. Mane skipped away from Koke and drove infield but De Paul stuck with him so doggedly that Mane pushed him away to create space for a short pass to Jordan Henderson.
As he released the ball, Angel Correa gave him a clip on the back of his legs but rather than shy away, Mane continued his run into the box and immediately benefitted from the luck he earned.
Trent Alexander-Arnold had created Jota’s 13th-minute opener with a sublime cross, so good it was harder to miss than convert, but this second assist was a mishit shot which inadvertently fell perfectly into Mane’s path.
An Atletico attack broke down and rather than find his team caught out in transition, Felipe committed one of those typically cynical fouls which Simeone could probably trademark, clipping Mane’s legs as he attempted to break clear inside Liverpool’s half.
Dutch referee Danny Makkelie pulled his cards from his pocket but Felipe refused to engage, albeit while facing the official. Makkelie repeatedly called Felipe towards him to receive his punishment but the defender stood his ground. So Makkelie sent him off. UEFA later clarified the decision was based purely on the excessive force of Felipe’s tackle but he surely did himself few favours by ignoring the official’s instruction so blatantly.
Klopp felt sufficiently comfortable to withdraw Mane at half-time and that decision was vindicated, even if Liverpool failed to further translate their superiority to the scoreline with a series of almost comical misses shortly after the restart from Mohamed Salah, Jota and Joel Matip.
“People want to see more goals but we did create more chances. I think the game was nearly perfect,” Klopp said.
But even that turned into a positive as it allowed Anfield one final laugh at Suarez, completing his outing as pantomime villain at a ground where he was once lauded. His deflected 57th-minute strike appeared to have given the ten men a lifeline but a VAR check confirmed an offside in the build-up. Suarez was substituted shortly afterwards, belatedly to a subdued round of applause from those who had already had their fill of schadenfreude.
Although there were one or two minor moments of alarm thereafter, Atletico were denied any such route back into the game as Liverpool righted the wrongs of March 2020 but also the reverse fixture a fortnight ago, when Liverpool squandered a two-goal lead and required a late Salah penalty to snatch a 3-2 victory.
“We have learnt our lesson from Madrid when we were 2-0 up,” Alexander-Arnold told BT Sport. “We were able to see it through and dominate the game.
“We know what type of team they are. They like to suck you in to their way of playing but we kept the ball, kept it moving quickly and scored two very good goals.”
Injuries in midfield have caused Klopp some consternation of late but Fabinho made a welcome return from a knee problem, lasting an hour before Thiago Alcantara made his first appearance in six weeks following a calf injury to replace him and replenish that department further.
A possible injury to Roberto Firmino — substituted 12 minutes from time after coming on for Mane — was the only sour note on a night which saw Liverpool secure top spot in Group B with two games to spare. Furthermore, Liverpool are now unbeaten in 25 matches in all competitions, their joint-longest such run since they joined the Football League in 1893.
It is a far cry from mid-March, when Klopp claimed it would be “almost impossible to qualify” for the Champions League after a troubled Premier League campaign left them needing snookers to reach the top four. Yet they managed it and, certainly in Europe, haven’t look back since.
Whether it is the events of March this year or last, Liverpool have moved on.