Stunned by Atlético Madrid, Liverpool Crashes Out of Champions League
LIVERPOOL, England — Anfield, for once, was hushed. It was a deflated silence, but it was also a reflective one, as if those in the stands — and possibly, for a moment, those on the field — were trying to process what had just happened, what it meant, and what that feeling was. Liverpool has not had to deal with much disappointment recently. Now, all of a sudden, it was staring it in the face.
Three weeks ago, when Manager Jürgen Klopp appealed to the mythology of Anfield to carry his team past an Atlético Madrid squad with a narrow lead to protect and a reputation to sustain, it felt a little like a final throw of the dice.
Klopp’s all-conquering team — the reigning European champion, setting a fearsome pace at the summit of the Premier League — had run aground against Diego Simeone’s battle-hardened back line.
Liverpool’s success this season has been built on the breadth and variety of its weaponry. The speed and invention of the front three, of course, receives no shortage of attention; so, too, does the relentlessness and precision of Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, the fullbacks, and the principle means of creation at Klopp’s disposal.
But Liverpool can hurt opponents in any number of ways. Klopp’s team can go around or cut through. It can fight wars of attrition and it can conduct lightning raids. It can score from the air, from set pieces, and it can score on the ground. It can win pretty and it can win ugly, and it does not especially mind which.
The problem, in the first leg in Madrid, was that Atlético seemed immune to them all. Warning Simeone and his team that it still had to face the ace in Liverpool’s pack — Anfield — felt like a sign that Klopp was not entirely sure how his team was going to break Atlético’s hold.
But then: why would Klopp not have had faith? This is a stadium that has delivered for him, and for his team, countless times over the last few years, as he has guided Liverpool to three European finals. He has never lost a two-legged knockout tie as Liverpool coach. This was where Liverpool stunned Borussia Dortmund at the last, where it overpowered Manchester City, where it performed the all-but-impossible against Barcelona.
This is a stadium that expects miracles not out of hope, but out of experience. It would have known Liverpool would hurl itself at Atlético. It would have believed that, for all Simeone’s team’s defensive resolve, Liverpool would eventually find a way through: an Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain cross, a Georginio Wijnaldum header, just before halftime.
And it would not have doubted — though it might have worried — even as Liverpool created a raft of chances in the second half, and wasted every single one of them, that it knew how this would end: a late winner, a hero to acclaim, a place in the quarterfinals.
For two minutes in extra time, it seemed that the honor, this time, would fall to Roberto Firmino: he had not scored at all at Anfield this season; that is the sort of story line that would do. Wijnaldum crossed, Firmino struck, hit the post, and gobbled up the rebound. Anfield exulted in a 2-0 lead; another night to burnish the mythology.
Then came one mistake, one error of judgment, one misplaced pass. Adrián, Liverpool’s stand-in goalkeeper, misjudged a clearance. Joao Félix, until then a peripheral figure, picked up, and fed Marcos Llorente. He turned Alexander-Arnold and curled the ball into the far corner. Anfield stood, stunned. This is not how these stories finish.
Still, there was hope: one Liverpool goal would be enough, now. But then Atlético drifted forward again, and there was Llorente again. The same finish, the same outcome, the same silence. An unfamiliar sense of disappointment settled on the stadium. Even fans who have become used to the unthinkable seemed to know that there was no getting out of this one.
There would be worse to come: as the clock ticked toward the 120th minute, Liverpool’s will broken, Álvaro Morata broke clear, and slotted a ball past Ádrian. Atlético would not only win the tie, but the game, too. Simeone’s team had beaten not only the team, but the myth, too. Anfield, for the first time in a while, would have to get used to this unfamiliar disappointment.
Liverpool’s reign as European champion is over. Klopp’s record in European competition is no longer flawless. And Liverpool’s fortress no longer seems quite so impregnable. Anfield, it turned out, was almost enough. But not quite. Not this time.