FootballPremier League

Advantage Atletico but Liverpool have every reason to be confident at Anfield

February 19, 2020

THERE are many things to savour about being a Liverpool fan. The warmth of memories of fantastic days and nights supporting the club, the relentless march in the here and now towards a 19th league title, and, let’s be honest, the swarm of snide that comes our way at the smallest sign of a slip in standards.

Such is the outside obsession from many with all things Liverpool, supporters on Merseyside have taken the tag of “unbearable” as their own. There are flags, banners, and t-shirts all bearing the phrase: The Unbearables.

If you’re told it enough, why not adopt it and own it? It was born from what is seen and heard so often when it comes to discussion of Liverpool outside the red bubble. And it was there last night, in the aftermath of Atletico Madrid deservedly claiming a 1-0 advantage in the Champions League clash. A high-flying Liverpool ran into an organised, shifting wall of committed footballers and couldn’t find a way through a Madrid matrix.

It was in part the bucket of sweat commitment and organisation of Diego Simeone’s side. They brought their A-game on and off the pitch, revelling in the pre-match pitch that had them down as plucky underdogs. Generous officials played their part, too, seemingly oblivious to the darker arts that Atletico have long had a reputation for. But Jurgen Klopp and the players wearing Liverpool shirts must also take responsibility.

Too often the final ball, the laser-sharp decision-making, the moment of magic, was lacking. The match ended with Liverpool having had 73 per cent possession, more corners – seven to two – but with only two shots hitting the target in the game, both from Atletico. As is always the way in these affairs, attention on the final whistle immediately turned to the second leg at Anfield on March 11. And it’s here where the moans and groans began. Talking about Anfield offering an advantage in European competition was referred to as a “cliche” on BT Sport. 

Meanwhile, a journalist of repute was typing out some tainted tosh that called into question the “power of Anfield”. Because we’re all romantic fools, right? Donning our rose-tinted glasses, declaring “this is our year” while Paul Konchesky lines up at full-back. Well so goes the tired trope. And it’s no doubt been true at times in the past.

But come on. Is Jurgen Klopp really in the wrong to be grinning in defiance down a camera lens and declaring “welcome to Anfield”? Is Andy Robertson, who was clearly irked about some aspects of Atletico’s approach, really “deluded” (another classic) to suggest this tie isn’t over and the special things that can happen on Liverpool’s home turf could play a part in the second leg?

The fact is, what has been presented in the past by detractors as cult behaviour or extreme romanticism built on long-past moments of glory now has a firm foot in the present. A 2-1 defeat to Crystal Palace in April 2017 was the last time Liverpool lost at Anfield in the Premier League. Klopp is yet to lose a two-legged tie in Europe. And Simeone's side have won only five of their last 20 away Champions League games.

Using the bookies as a barometer, Atletico are 7-1 to win the match on the night at Anfield and only marginal favourites to progress in the competition. Liverpool, meanwhile, remain second favourites to win the Champions League again. If the “unbearables” are ramping themselves up for another European night of glory, they have every right to. This is not dewy-eyed arrogance built on sand. It’s confidence from following one of the best incarnations of Liverpool FC in decades.

Any evidence the Reds can turn over a first-leg deficit in Europe then? How about a 4-0 win over Barcelona in May? How about a performance under pressure at Anfield against a mean defence when only a clean sheet will really do? See Liverpool 1 Napoli 0 in December 2018. With Klopp as manager, the Anfield lights blazing and the European flags fluttering, Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund, Villarreal, Manchester City, Roma and Paris Saint-Germain are among the sides to fall to the Reds.

And for all their fight, needle and know-how, much celebrated with a lap of honour on the final whistle, are Atletico really ready for 90 minutes or more at L4? Much of the post-match discussion has surrounded Liverpool’s off-day, but with Klopp sacrificing two of his key attackers in Sadio Mane and Mo Salah during the game, you wonder whether privately he wasn’t too down about a 1-0 defeat away from home. 

And as for Anfield, well what does Simeone make of it? He’s a man who spent 90 minutes ramping up the crowd at the Estadio Metropolitano, perhaps while praying for a bigger advantage to take to Merseyside. He also spoke at length of the part the Atletico faithful had played in the win, from a stunning bus welcome to a rabid crowd inside the ground. 

“They were there the whole game. It made me want to put my boots on and go on the pitch,” said Simeone. The power of crowds is clearly something the best-paid coach in the world believes in. And it could go some way to explaining the spiky response to a simple question.

When asked in the post-match press conference about whether his players could perform at Anfield, where the advantage of a passionate support will be with Liverpool, the Argentine, coupling his answer with an intense stare, said simply: “I’m not thinking about it.”

You can bet he is. Like we are. Like Liverpool’s players are. And like those perpetually prodded by everything that Scousers do are. Anfield awaits. Don't bet against it being "unbearable" once again.