EXHALE, first job done, win the group in just four match days! Doing it at Anfield, on a European night, against that loathsome bunch made it even sweeter. Atletico Madrid was, well, Atletico Madrid with all their dark art tricks. The referee’s use of cards and inability to show one at a time was a bit perplexing. More on that in a bit. Group of Death? What death? Rock-solid through four matches with a perfect record and outscoring our opponents by eight goals. This coupled with Porto and AC Milan drawing early in the day not only see Liverpool advance but win the group. With two matches to spare, like I said earlier job done!
Jurgen Klopp made five changes to the starting 11 he sent out against Brighton on the weekend. Matip regains his place, Fabinho slots back into his customary spot shielding the CB’s and Jota played through the center. Ox got a rare start in his favored midfield role and Kostas Tsimikas was given his first Champion League start at left-back and neither disappointed. Ratings will come later, but I would argue Jurgen gets a 10 for all four ECL matches this season. A masterclass of coaching, while going up against an opposing manager, who has a master’s in being classless.
Show me your cards!
What was that?!?! I mean was it yellow, red, a mixture, two yellows? I am still confused but satisfied and excited for what’s next. Let’s start with the great play on the pitch. Liverpool came out flying with a clear message of intent. They had the opportunity to possess the ball and you could see that Atletico was going to sit back a bit and ease into the game. Felipe was completely caught out by an Alexander-Arnold cross that Jota easily slotted past Oblak in the 13th minute. You could argue a keeper of Oblak’s class should do better, but how Felipe responded had to be the worst part of his day, or maybe not. Sadio Mane continued to quietly add to his tally of goals this season in the 21st minute and before you knew it Liverpool was up 2-0 and Anfield was alive.
In just the eighth minute we saw the game’s first confusing card moment. The match official inexplicably had both cards in the same pocket. Every time he went to his pocket it looked like a red was being shown. Foreshadowing of what was coming. Mane continued his fine form of battling and taking cheap shots at Kieran Trippier. I mean those curls and that smug Spursy look makes me want to mug him too. With each side in the book by the 15th minute, there was no guarantee this finished 11 v 11. Felipe was sent off for a straight red offense when he was deemed to take out Mane. Some believe it was actually two yellows one for the tackle and one for not coming to the match official when summoned. Either way, it was harsh. Two additional yellows were shown for dissent and Atleti was in trouble.
Time for Substitutions
The second half saw Jurgen look to his bench to bring on Bobby Firmino for Sadio. This was no surprise especially with Sadio’s love for a tackle on Athletico. He has picked up cards in all four matches against them and also has been subbed off three times at the half. Honestly, because I think Jurgen knows he is always that close to seeing red against them. Liverpool kept possession and never really looked back. There was the disallowed goal for offsides that Suarez scored in the first half but that was offset by Jota’s goal that was called back. Liverpool kept up the pressure and played a really solid second half to see out the performance.
There was of course some head-scratching decisions like not using all 5 substitutes on hand, by the manager who loves to moan that the EPL is still at three subs. Bringing Bobby on after having injury issues instead of giving Taki the 45 minutes he deserved to play alongside Mo and Jota. It was great to see Thiago back on the pitch, but a bit odd with a head of hair, to be fair. Taki and Origi finally came on in the 78th minute when Ox and unfortunately Bobby was removed. He appeared to clutch at his hamstring as he left the pitch so we will need to hold our breath to see what his results are. Nat Phillips, the legend, the myth, made a cameo appearance late stoppage time to relieve Matip. Match ended, clean sheet kept, job done, for now.
Now What Do We Do?
Win two more matches on the spin and go into the group stage as the team to beat. Sounds great, but at what expense? Can’t be at risk of injury, fatigue, or any form of glory hunting, that’s for sure. You don’t get trophies for winning your group but you do get favorable matchups for winning early. The beauty is we don’t need to get anything out of the last two group matches, but I feel they will be vital. We have squad players that need more matches, Taki, Ox, Gomes, Konate, and the already mentioned Tsimikas. These could be pivot opportunities to mix in some youth players along with senior first-teamers to get extra minutes that will pay big dividends later in the season.
While we talk about the guys who need some more run, how about some Greek love. The kind you get when you watch a magisterial cross come into the box. Let’s all be real, no one knew this kid’s delivery was this good. Honestly, I believe we are going to score on every set-piece he attempts. His corners are spot on from both sides and his defensive positioning is getting better with every minute. He has now made 5 starts and 5 sub appearances in all competitions and Liverpool is yet to concede this season while he is on the pitch. I’m not saying he is supplanting Robbo as starting left-back but he is staking a claim for minutes and down the road who knows.
Job done, for now, is right. We have two more match days to navigate and a draw into the round of 16 but I feel great about this Champions League campaign and can’t wait for the knockout stages. The squad depth that is gained by these matches is very important and will bode well at our fights for domestic silverware too. 12 points in four matches are fun, but when two of those wins are against Diego Simeone it is even sweeter. This time he showed up for the handshake, too bad he had to take a beating first. Hope you enjoyed the match recap and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.