1057 GMT April 05, 2020
The 1-0 victory over Liverpool at the Wanda Metropolitano three weeks ago showcased all the typical values of Diego Simeone’s side – togetherness in defense, efficiency in attack and unwavering focus and concentration over the whole 90 minutes, The Independent reported.
Such virtues were less obvious during Saturday afternoon’s incident-packed 2-2 La Liga draw at home to Sevilla, which again showed the more brittle and finicky sides of Simeone’s current team.
The draw kept Atletico in fifth place in the La Liga table, two points behind third-placed Sevilla, which left much the happier side. Both are now really stuck in a very tight race for the last two Champions League qualification places, which also includes Getafe, Real Sociedad, Valencia and Villarreal, and is likely to go right down to the wire.
That is an unusual position for Atletico to be in. Under Simeone, the Madrid club has generally had a top four spot all but wrapped up by this stage, and was often challenging Real Madrid and Barcelona at the very top of the table.
The brightest spot as Atletico took five points from nine available over the last fortnight has been a clear return to form and fitness of Portuguese starlet Joao Felix – who appeared off the bench in the 3-1 home win over Villarreal and 1-1 draw at Espanyol, before making his first start since late January against Sevilla.
The 20-year-old had looked low on confidence before his muscle injury, and his absence was not talked about too much around the Liverpool game. Since returning he has looked much sharper and brighter, and he was in the picture during all Atletico’s best moments on Saturday.
The main focus at Anfield is anyway likely to be mostly on Atletico’s defense. It remains startling that Liverpool did not even manage one shot on target over the 90 minutes of the first leg. Especially as Simeone’s team did not keep a clean sheet in any of the three La Liga games since.
That opens up Simeone’s biggest selection posers for Wednesday – both full-back positions. So impressive in the first leg against Liverpool, left-back Renan Lodi was missing on Saturday due to caution over an unspecified injury, and the Brazilian missed training again on Sunday.
Mario Hermoso, a center-back by trade, deputized against Sevilla and looked like someone playing only his second game of 2020. Nobody at Atletico wants their first leg goalscorer Saul Niguez to have to fill in at left-back on Wednesday, especially the player himself.
On the other flank, Kieran Trippier is challenged by Sime Vrsaljko, who so frustrated Sadio Mane in the first leg that Jurgen Klopp substituted one of his key attackers at half-time. The England international has made a surprisingly quick recovery from a groin operation, but Vrsaljko’s better pace and engine might see him picked again at Anfield.
Liverpool’s dip in form since the first leg has of course not gone unnoticed within the Atletico camp, with the nervy 2-1 Premier League win at home to Bournemouth finishing just as the Rojiblanco players were warming up out on the Wanda pitch.
“I’ve not watched their games, but of course we’ve heard the results,” midfielder Marcos Llorente told The Independent in the mixed zone afterward.
“Those are other competitions, the Champions League will be very different. It took a lot to get the victory in the game here, and we know it will be even tougher there. We know they will throw their lives into it from the first minute.”
Atletico also knows that its away form has been poor all season – it lost at both Juventus and Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League group stages, and has just one win in its last 13 road games in all competitions. It is also aware of Liverpool’s strong record at Anfield, and will remember how Barcelona lost a 3-0 first leg advantage in last season’s UCL semifinals.
A more pressing memory though is how Simeone’s side itself blew a 2-0 lead when it went to Juventus at this stage of the competition 12 months ago, as Koke told reporters at the Wanda on Saturday.
“We have the lesson of last season, what happened to us in Turin, and we don’t want that to happen again,” Koke said. “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 it on Wednesday.”
That intensity and aggression was only seen in patches against Sevilla on Saturday, and its sporadic sightings are the reason why Atletico currently sits fifth in La Liga. But the way Simeone’s side upped its game for the first leg against Liverpool was striking – and it believes it can repeat that type of performance again at Anfield on Wednesday.