Frequently last season Liverpool played sides whose sole aim was to frustrate them. So often we faced teams that would sit on the edge of their own 18 yard box and constrict the pitch, before trying to hit Liverpool on the break and scoring. It took us until March to figure out this problem and break down a team that turned up looking to sucker punch us, Burnley eventually being the unfortunate victims. Diego Simeone has the same mindset in every game his team plays in and tonight was no different.
After comfortably beating Bayern Munich on their own patch, in their own pre-season tournament, last night, Jurgen Klopp rang the changes 24 hours later. Danny Ward made his first appearance in goal since his play-off final heroics at the end of last season which saw Huddersfield Town gain promotion to the Premier League. In front of him came in James Milner, Ragnar Klavan, Joe Gomez and Jon Flanagan in a new look back four compared to the one that lined up yesterday evening. Sadio Mane and Emre Can retained their places in a bid to regain fitness. They were joined in midfield by Giorginio Wijnaldum, Adam Lallana and Ben Woodburn. Dominic Solanke started up front looking to continue his impressive form since joining the club from Chelsea for free in July. Philippe Coutinho, Alberto Moreno, Dejan Lovren and Mohamed Salah were given the night off, but Divock Origi would return to the bench after gaining a slight niggle in the warm up to the Hertha Berlin game on Saturday.
Diego Simeone made wholesale changes to his Atletico side. Carlos Moya came in in goal and was fronted by Lucas Hernandez, Jose Gimenez, Sime Vrsaljko and Sergi. Thomas Partey and Matias Kranevitter looked to provide a compact central midfield. They were flanked by Augusto Fernandez, who was returning from injury, and Keidi Bare. Angel Correa lined up alongside Luciano Vietto up front. Fernando Torres wouldn’t start but would make the bench. He was joined by Stefan Savic, formerly of Manchester City, Filipe Luis, formerly of Chelsea, and Antoine Griezmann, possibly soon to be formerly of Atletico Madrid. With such a young side and fringe players in the line up you would expect this Liverpool side to struggle. But with Atletico playing an equally weakened side and two games in two days possibly taking its toll on both squads, it was bound to be an interesting game and a good test of the young players for both sides.
The game started in quite an untidy fashion. Both teams were playing quite sloppily. It had been raining in Munich and the 3rd placed play-off game between Bayern and Napoli had been played on the pitch a hour before the kick-off of this game, which may have had an effect on how the ball is running on the surface. Both teams were struggling to gain control of possession and found the pitch bobbly and untrustworthy. Joe Gomez nearly found this out to his expense in the early stages when he tried to hit a square pass across the edge of the centre circle, only for the ball to get stuck on the pitch and be picked up by Correa. Luckily for Gomez the pitch was equally cruel to the Uruguayan attacker and he too fell victim to its poor condition.
On 10 minutes, Liverpool had their first chance of game. Ben Woodburn managed to hold on to possession on the left wing and whip a ball in. Dom Solanke started off with his marker having about 3 yards on him. But Solanke has proven in his short time at the club how adept he is in the box. He sprinted across his marker and flicked the ball goalwards. Moya could only watch and admire the header as it sailed across the 6 yard box and just wide of his goal. It was a very clever header from Solanke and he was unlucky not to score. Atletico had been warned that Solanke should be taken lightly at their own peril. Five minutes later Liverpool had another chance. After retaining possession down the right, Adam Lallana lifted the ball to the back post where Ben Woodburn attempted an acrobatic volley on the corner of the 6 yard box. But Sime Vrsaljko did enough to put the young Welsh winger off and Woodburn could only send his volley out for a goal kick near the corner flag.
Liverpool were clearly looking to exploit Vrsaljko at right back. Milner and Woodburn were seeing a lot of the ball in the early stages. and were trying to double up on the Croatian right back. But Vrsaljko was gaining plenty of cover from Partey and Hernandez to nullify the Liverpool threat. Atletico’s insistence on cancelling out every opposition threat was making the game a tight affair, a theme that would run throughout the match. But Liverpool remained patient knowing that Atletico did not have the technical capability to hold the ball in the midfield long enough to cause them much issue. Liverpool had also lined up with 3 central midfielders, which went some way to causing Atletico’s problems in ball retention. On 33 minutes though, Atletico would gain a breakthrough.
Kranevitter played the ball out to Vrsaljko on the right, who had been played on criminally by Ragnar Klavan. First time, he side footed the ball across the box where Angel Correa was waiting unmarked. Correa scuffed his shot towards goal from 6 yards out but Danny Ward managed to make a remarkable save, diving across goal and tipping the ball onto the bar. Unfortunately though for Ward the ball deflected back out onto the head of the onrushing Kaide Bare, who had the simple task of nodding it home. Liverpool’s static defence had let Danny Ward down badly. After his terrific save, he deserved a better ending to the move. But nobody reacted from the moment Kranevitter picked out Vrsaljko. With Atletico now a goal ahead and in a stubborn mood, you had a feeling that Liverpool were in for a very difficult night.
Liverpool prodded and probed, and were getting in behind Atletico down the flanks. But Atletico were crowding out the middle of the area making it hard for Liverpool’s wode players to pick out another red shirt in the congested area. Sadio Mane was now seeing more of the ball and was regularly cutting it back to the penalty spot, but no one in red thought to drop off and look for the tap in. When the referee blew for half time, many in the stadium would have been pleased due to the poor quality from both teams. A heavy pitch obviously wasn’t doing the game any good, making the game a very scrappy affair at times. Liverpool had been let down by a lapse in concentration which had cost them a goal. It seemed as if Klopp’s side didn’t have a solution to the problems Simeone was posing. Liverpool needed something else in the second half.
After making changes at half time, Liverpool certainly looked to have changed their game up slightly. With Atletico crowding out the middle and Liverpool not being able to cut the ball back in the area, the reds were now trying to play quickly in the midfield. However Atletico’s numbers were again doing the job for them. Watching Atletico is like watching Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan side of the early 90’s There never seems to be more than 30 yards between the defence and attack, making them compact and difficult to break down. But Liverpool continued to be patient and were now creating chances. In the 47th minute Jordan Henderson, on as a sub, zipped a ball into Solanke on the edge of the box. Solankes first touch was excellent but his shot was well blocked by Gimenez. It was another indication of the threat Solanke poses in and around the box, and another example of how astute the Spaniards were defensively.
After that half chance, it took Liverpool until the 63rd minute to create their first clear cut chance on goal. Andrew Robertson whipped ball in from the left and Gimenez sliced his clearance. For a moment it looked as if it would be a very embarassing mishap for the young centre half but the ball went wide of Moya’s post. It was the first time Liverpool had really worried Moya in the second half and it wasn’t even a Liverpool player who had caused the issue.
The Liverpool defence continued to see hardly any action this half and Danny Ward didn’t have anything to do at all. Liverpool had most of the ball in the Atletico half but Atletico were unrelenting in frustrating Liverpool. But Liverpool were creating more and more chances. On 74 minutes Robertson played in Firmino down the left channel, who flicked it inside to Marko Grujic. Grujic took it first time and fired over the bar. It was a disappointing finish from a promising position on a rare occasion that Atletico were opened up, but Liverpool pressed ahead and, 2 minutes later, had another chance. Ejaria passed to Origi on the left edge of the box. Origi turned and found himself in half a yard of space. He managed to get away a snap shot but the ball whizzed past Moya’s near post. On 82 minutes though, Liverpool would have a reward for their persistance.
Marko Grujic squared the ball into the area to Divock Origi after another period of patient build up play. Origi tried to hold the ball up but Gabi stood on his foot. Origi didn’t go down at first but, after a slight hesistation, decided he better hit the deck. The referee took a moment to make his mind up but eventually pointed to the spot. Roberto Firmino stepped up and to send Moya the wrong way and equalise. In reality it was a slightly soft penalty considering the amount of time it took for Origi to go down. But there was contact from Gabi and, in truth, it was no more than Liverpool deserved, even it was scored in slightly controversial circumstances.
Despite Liverpool scoring so late on, there was still time for chances for both sides. In the 88th minute Nicolas Gaitan took a corner and aimed for the near post. Lucas Hernandez nipped in and flicked the ball goalwards but Danny Ward was able to tip it over. From the resulting corner, Gaitan whipped it in again and Liverpool failed to clear. After being nodded back into the area, Savic eventually shot but sent it over. It was a let off for Liverpool after failing to deal with the two corners properly, an old ailment that clearly hasn’t been resolved. In the 90th minute Liverpool would fasion one last chance for themselves. After some patient build up, Firmino played the ball to Robertson in midfield. He carried it a couple of yards before shooting and flashing it wide. It was to be last action of the game. With the tie deadlocked, it would take penalties to decide who would win the 2017 Audi Cup.
Having obviously won the toss, Liverpool were first to step and Roberto Firmino would convert. Antoine Griezmann equalised before Jordan Henderson stepped up. The captains pen was poor and Moya was able to save easily. Fernando Torres was next for Atletico and he would convert, a feat equalled by Divock Origi. Gabi was next up for Atletico and he would score. Ryan Kent then scored a beautiful pen before Nicolas Gaitan made it 4-3. Marko Grujic stepped up knowing he had to score to keep Liverpool alive. He duly dispatched his penalty down the middle of the goal. As Filipe Luis walked from the centre circle to the penalty spot, he knew it all came down to his spot kick. He would send Danny Ward the wrong way to win the final for Atletico Madrid.
Although this game will go down as a loss, it cannot really be constituted as such. It was by far Liverpool’s toughest game so far of their pre-season preparations. Atletico set up to frustrate Liverpool and make the game very difficult. For the most part they succeeded, but Liverpool proved once again that this isn’t the same team that was suffocated at the KC Stadium by Hull City or strangled in the F.A Cup by Wolves last season. They pushed forward with much more of a purpose. They didn’t look like they were attacking for the sake of it. They looked like they had a plan when they went forward and they looked like they had a couple of them. They went wide and tried to exploit Atletico that way. When that didn’t work they came inside and tried to play quickly through the middle. When that didn’t work they brought on Origi to run the channels and make a nuisance of himself. Klopp has clearly worked on plan A, B and C over the pre-season. With one more pre-se play and the new campaign just 10 days away, it was pleasing to see that Liverpool may have just expelled some of their old ghosts from the past few years.