Atletico Madris’s strategy at the Wanda Metripolitano on Tuesday evening were on display for all to see. When Saul Ninguez scored an early goal, Diego Simeone had what he came for. The hosts sat back and protected the lead, as is tradition.
The Spanish side, known for its defensive prowess ever since Simeone took charge, successfully absorbed the waves of Liverpool pressure en route to a 1-0 first-leg victory at home in their Champions League Round of 16 matchup against title-holders Liverpool. It was a solid accomplishment for a team that has otherwise not looked itself this season.
Still, Jurgen Klopp was not necessarily impressed.
The Reds boss believed that some relatively recalcitrant methods were utilized as the hosts fought to maintain their early lead. After withdrawing valuable winger Sadio Mane at halftime, there were concerns that the Senegalese star was injured, but Klopp waved those away, instead revealing his true intentions behind the move.
“It’s part of football, I don’t like it,” Klopp said in his post-match press conference. Indeed, Mane had picked up a first-half yellow card on a coming together with Sime Vrsaljko, and Klopp admitted feeling the need to protect his attacker from further disciplinary action. “The [Atletico Madrid] plan was to get Sadio out of the game with a yellow card.”
“I was afraid that his opponent would go down if Sadio only took a deep breath. After 30 minutes, three Atletico players were on the ground, not even injured.”
Klopp was not the only one to notice such tactics, known colloquially by a naughty word not necessarily repeatable here. The players took a slightly more diplomatic route to the same conclusion. Atletico Madrid “started falling over and things like that, trying to get under our skin” according to Andy Robertson, while Virgil Van Dijk said: “That is the way they play, that’s Spanish football.” Even some in the media were tactfully astute.
No, wait, he's back up again.
— Ian Doyle (@IanDoyleSport) February 18, 2020
Still, the Atletico Madrid players did not take kindly to those accusations, according to an ESPN report out Wednesday morning. Per the report: “ESPN has been told that Atletico’s players are surprised by the complaints, and said it is important to be ‘gracious’ in defeat as well as in victory, and that Klopp should focus more on his own team’s shortcomings, given that they ‘didn’t get a shot on target in 90 minutes.’
It’s no secret how Atletico Madrid plays, yet they still found a soft spot in one of the best defenses in Europe and effectively shut down one of the more potent attacks on the continent as well. Job done by the midway point. The second leg on March 11 after “the longest halftime break you can wish for” according to Klopp, will likely feature more of the same, and should make for appointment viewing.