Liverpool can play on psychology to pierce Atletico Madrid in Champions League second
Part of the fabric of Liverpool’s most electric European night at Anfield – still barely believable – was the psychology that Barcelona packed with them to Merseyside.
Last May, as Jurgen Klopp’s men overturned a 3-0 away Champions League deficit by making Lionel Messi and co “look like schoolboys” in a 4-0 victory, to borrow Luis Suarez’s assessment, it was obvious La Liga’s giants were still tainted by their humiliation against Roma.
In the 2017-18 quarter-finals, Barca arrived at Stadio Olimpico with a 4-1 advantage but capitulated to concede three, score none and exit the tournament.
Alisson was in Roma’s goal on that improbable night and as he stood in between the sticks for Liverpool’s remontada, he noticed how the mentality of the opponents eroded with every attack.
“Barca were thinking about that game against Roma for sure and they were talking about it,” the Brazil international detailed in an exclusive interview to The Independent.
“Everyone from Barca was saying they had learnt from that experience and it will not happen again.
“When we scored the second goal, we believed that we could really make a miracle happen.
“I think in that moment, they were remembering that Roma game because when I looked at Messi and Luis Suarez, they had their heads down with their hands on their hair like they were feeling it’s coming again.”
Alisson is sidelined through injury on Wednesday night as Liverpool prime themselves to stage another European masterclass on their own turf, this time against Atletico Madrid.
The circumstances may be markedly different – the visitors arrive with just a one-goal cushion and are disciples of the defensive art, but Klopp’s charges will still aim to spear their psychology.
A year ago, Diego Simeone’s men went to Juventus armed with a 2-0 scoreline, only to succumb to a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick without registering a shot on target themselves.
“We have the lesson of last season, what happened to us in Turin, and we don’t want that to happen again,” Atleti captain Koke said this weekend. “We lacked intensity and aggression in that game, we were not Atletico Madrid.”
Liverpool’s task under the Anfield lights, powered by a crowd that crows over their influence in such situations, will be to convince the visitors that such a Champions League surrender is in their DNA.
They have to cause chaos and uncertainty in a rearguard that hasn’t kept a clean sheet in the three La Liga encounters since the first-leg meeting.
England’s pacesetters have also been far from their exacting standards in recent weeks, with their loss at Atleti being followed by two more defeats in four fixtures.
A 2-1 victory over Bournemouth on Saturday may have not been the most convincing, but Liverpool’s fight – a core component of their incredible consistency over two seasons – returned and will be essential on Wednesday.
“The challenge against Atletico, it was always clear from the first moment that it is one of the biggest in football,” Klopp said. “They will not go out with the white flag, they fight until the end and that’s what we do – that’s why it’s so interesting.
“It’s half-time, that’s the best news. Half-time in a normal game, we use traditionally in a pretty good way. So we like that, we learn from the first half, we show the boys a few situations and in the second half very often we improve.
“This time, we had not 15 minutes but three weeks as half-time. We did not prepare the whole time for the game but have now for a couple of days and that’s what we want to use as well. I think a lot of things are now much clearer than they were before.
“If you know it, it’s one thing – if you feel it, it’s completely different. A couple of advantages that we didn’t have there are now on our side, they are not the only things that are decisive in this game but the atmosphere will be a point, 100 per cent.
“That we have our crowd will be an advantage, that they don’t have their crowd will be another advantage, that’s just how it is and we have to use it. We have to produce a performance on the pitch that has to be exceptional, absolutely, in all departments because playing against a deep-defending side is one thing but with the counter-attacking threat they are on the other side, that makes it even more difficult.
“Each offensive player can be really dangerous in these moments and it’s not only them, it’s set-pieces and stuff like this.”
While Liverpool have familiarised themselves with Atleti’s methodology, Simeone might be a little less certain of the hosts. The Merseysiders delivered an atypical display at Wanda Metropolitano, which had been the senior side’s first defeat in five months. They conceded from the opening corner of the game, and usually deadly from those deadballs themselves, were dire despite Atleti’s weaknesses in defending them.
Diego Simeone and Jurgen Klopp, Atletico Madrid and Liverpool managers (Getty)
Liverpool had all of the ball, but zero offensive effectiveness and Atleti, unsurprisingly, will be uncompromising again. “I think Liverpool know how we will play after eight years of being on this stage,” Simeone said.
“We have to keep what we can during the game. Some managers will say: ‘We are going to get forward.’ That would be a nice pleasant dream. The game will demand that we are on top form. We think we can hurt them.”
While Atleti’s intentions are crystalline, Liverpool’s approach is equally unambiguous. “We need higher speed in different moments and we need better switches in different moments,” Klopp said.
“We need braver football in different moments, we need to play around a formation, we need to play in behind a formation, we need to play through the gaps, that’s all clear.
“If you play predictable, Atletico defends you for the next six months without a rest. But if you prepare situations where it’s not that easy to defend, the more often you are in situations where you can score – and that’s what we have to do.”
Piercing Atleti’s psyche will also certainly be on the agenda. “They are a very experienced team who played in these competitions for a really long time and they know how to deal with different situations,” Klopp noted, before reminding “but not a lot of them played before in a stadium like Anfield, in an atmosphere like we can create, and that’s something that we want to use.