History tells us that Atletico Madrid’s 1-0 advantage ahead of tonight’s Champions League last-16 second leg at Anfield makes them warm favourites to progress.
During Diego Simeone’s eight years as Atletico coach, his team have earned sometimes grudging admiration for their ability to defend with their backs to the wall, grab very useful away goals at key moments, and pull a cynical trick when required.
In 2015/16, Atletico travelled to Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich for a Champions League semi-final second leg holding a 1-0 lead.
Despite being outplayed for most of the game, they scraped through on away goals after Antoine Griezmann took advantage of a Bayern defensive error, and goalkeeper Jan Oblak saved Thomas Muller’s penalty (the game finished 2-2 on aggregate and Atletico went through on away goals).
Progress was more straightforward against Leicester in 2015/16 when Simeone’s side progressed easily to the last four despite Jamie Vardy’s second-half strike.
Also relevant to this game are the 2013/14 Champions League semi-finals, when the first leg against Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea at the Estadio Vicente Calderon finished scoreless. Atletico went 1-0 down in the first half at Stamford Bridge, but roared back to win 3-1.
In their most recent trip to England, Simeone’s side survived Sime Vrsaljko’s early sending off at the Emirates, nabbing a key away goal when Griezmann again pounced on a slip by Laurent Koscielny, thus staying on course to win the 2018 Europa League.
Over the last decade, nobody in Europe has been better at managing the situation over the 180 minutes in big European ties. Especially after first manoeuvring themselves into an advantageous position — as Atletico did with Saul Niguez’s early goal in the first leg at home to Liverpool last month. Their ability to hang on in games when things are going against them, only to swing the momentum back their way when the opportunity presents itself, has been unmatched.
Football does not stand still, however, and a lot has changed at Atletico over the last couple of years. Last summer saw Griezmann depart for Barcelona, while grizzled leaders like Gabi Fernandez, Diego Godin, and Fernando Torres have also left as part of a generational change in recent years.
Even last season there were signs that Simeone’s team were losing some of their edge. Atletico were deserved 2-0 winners over Juventus in a Champions League last 16 first leg at the Wanda Metropolitano, in a surprisingly dominant performance against a supposedly superior opponent reminiscent of the win over Liverpool last month.
It was all set up for a classic backs-to-the-wall defence in the second leg in Turin — but instead, Atletico surrendered quite meekly, and Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat-trick sent Juve through to the last eight.
The 2019/20 campaign has also shown plenty of signs that Simeone’s current side lack the steel and determination of the past. New arrivals like Kieran Trippier, Thomas Lemar, and Joao Felix have not yet proven they have the grit and nous of their predecessors. Away results have also been a problem for Atletico all season, with just four wins on the road in all competitions.
A previously super-tight defence has also been conceding sloppy goals. It’s startling that Atletico’s only clean sheet in their last five games in all competitions came in the first leg against Liverpool.
That suggests though that Atletico can still raise their game when it really matters. The way their new-look side were able to really get under the skins of Klopp and his players in the first leg also suggests that Simeone’s new team have not lost all of their old wiles.
While Klopp has been suggesting this week that Atletico’s players might be intimidated by the Anfield atmosphere, the memory of Juventus 12 months ago has dominated their thinking ahead of this visit to Merseyside.
“We have the lesson of last season, and what happened to us in Turin, and we don’t want that to happen again,” said club captain Koke, one of the survivors in the present side.
“We lacked intensity and aggression in that game, we were not Atletico Madrid. We know that when we are intense and aggressive and go for the game, we can compete with anybody. As we did against Liverpool in the first game. That is the basis for this team and we must show that on Wednesday.”
Simeone and his team can take the field tonight knowing that they have been in similar situations before, against just as impressive opponents, and found a way to progress. The question now is whether this season’s Atletico have the same steel and nous as their predecessors. The answer will come at Anfield tonight.
Atletico Madrid (probable): Oblak; Vrsaljko, Savic, Felipe, Lodi; Koke, Llorente, Partey, Niguez; Felix, Morata.