Since Diego Simeone catapulted them to the elite, Atletico have had a burden of expectation placed on them, but it’ll be eliminated against Liverpool.
Liverpool would be the best team in the world.
De jure, after they won the Club World Cup in December, but de facto also, with Jurgen Klopp’s machine charging towards a Premier League victory at record speed.
The reigning European kings face Atletico Madrid at the Champions League last 16 and awarded the two clubs’ trajectories, Liverpool are comfy favourites. But that’s just how Diego Simeone would want it.
‘El Cholo’ and his Atletico Madrid team thrive with the mantle of the underdog. Atletico are having a dismal season by their high standards, fourth after 24 matches, 13 points off the pace set by league leaders Real Madrid. They are not even the second-best team from the Spanish capital right now, with Getafe sitting third.
Having lost leaders Godin, Gabi Hernandez, Filipe Luis, Juanfran, star striker Antoine Griezmann and midfielder Rodri, they’re in what Simeone insists is a ‘transition year’, and it is telling badly on the pitch.
After surprisingly winning La Liga in 2014, Atletico have fought with their inflated status. They’re expected to battle with Barcelona and Real Madrid for the name, spending large in the transfer market too, but they’ve failed to fulfill the expectations on them. When Liverpool come to go to the Wanda Metropolitano on Tuesday night, they have the rare opportunity to take to the area as David, taking on Goliath, the role that fits them best.
Atletico feel pressure once the onus is on them to strike, that’s the case against many teams now they sit among the elite, but against Liverpool they could sit back and strike only when the opportune moment arrives. These are the games Simeone relishes.
They earned a creditable 2-2 draw against Juventus at home earlier this year in the Champions League group stage, they beat Barcelona 3-2 from the Spanish Super Cup semi-finals and just lost to Real Madrid in the final on penalties. Atletico might have succeeded in extra-time however Fede Valverde’s cynical foul on Alvaro Morata stopped the forwards from running through on goal to win it.
Against Real Madrid in La Liga they had some tight matches that might have dropped either way, drawing 0-0 and then losing 1-0, needing a clear penalty in the latter when Casemiro felled Morata.
The striker is back from injury to improve Atletico’s hopes, making an appearance in the 2-2 draw at Valencia. His return will increase the team’s hopes of entering a Liverpool defence which has retained 10 clean sheets in the club’s final 12 matches across all contests.
“We are lacking the clarity to complete the chances that we’re generating,” said Simeone in November. The coach knows that his team’s ending was under par; that is why he pushed Edinson Cavani’s coming in January.
While it’s difficult for the Metropolitano to fulfill the mythical Vicente Calderon, Atletico fans will place massive pressure on Liverpool, something that they do not often face from the Premier League. There are no teams such as Atletico in England.
Simeone still has some battle-hardened midfield generals, such as Saul Niguez and Koke, who will have the ability to carry out his directions to stifle Liverpool. Central defender Felipe, although not fitting Diego Godin’s impossibly excellent degree, has done well in his debut year at Atletico, while supporting the defence Jan Oblak is as striking as ever. He’s conceded 17 goals in 24 La Liga games, a more than strong record, and the Slovenian will be the last line of defence to maintain Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino at bay.
Atletico will use a low block to make certain that wing wizards Salah and Mane have no room to run into, as they like to perform, and Norwich revealed at Carrow Road which it’s an effective method of denying Klopp’s side clear-cut chances. The Rojiblancos will set up to frustrate in a manner that they can not in La Liga due to the expectations on them to produce. And while they’ve declined going forward, at the back they’ve largely been as mean as usual.
Liverpool’s midfield trio of Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and Fabinho offer boundless energy – and even more if Naby Keita gets the nod – but Atletico can match them, together with Thomas Partey, Koke, Saul and Marcos Llorente combining brains, brawn and constant running to try to out-battle their opposite numbers, finding weak spots and exploiting them.
They have not enough, this year, but do not bet against them rising to the occasion. Liverpool are, naturally, expected to advance, but in Atletico Madrid will discover a sterner competition than the form table alone indicates, and a team that will relish discovering its former self.