Mohamed Salah's late penalty saw Liverpool tighten their grip on their Champions League group as they overcame a thrilling fightback from Atletico Madrid to win 3-2 at the Wanda Metropolitano.
It did not seem like the game would be even remotely as dramatic as it proved to be after the first quarter of an hour in the Spanish capital. Salah had beaten three defenders before seeing a low drive deflect off James Milner to wrongfoot Jan Oblak and hand Liverpool an early lead that was doubled when Naby Keita volleyed a poor Luiz Felipe clearance into the right corner of the net.
Liverpool were utterly in control of this contest but as had been the case against AC Milan in their first group game they allowed Atletico off the mat. There was some fortune in the home side's first goal, an offside Thomas Lemar seemingly blocking Joel Matip's path to clear the ball as Antoine Griezmann deflected Koke's shot into the net, but the Reds only had themselves to blame for the equalizer.
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Naby Keita was easily beaten by Joao Felix in midfield before Griezmann drilled home the equalizer. Only fine saves from Alisson either side of half time were keeping Liverpool in the game before Griezmann was forced to exit the contest in the 55th minute, a high boot in the face of Roberto Firmino earning him a straight red.
In such circumstances Atleti resorted to factory settings under Diego Simeone, a tough nut to crack that was more than prepared to frustrate Liverpool by fair means or foul. All the more bizarre then that a long punt into the box seemed to force a glitch from Mario Hermoso, who pushed Diogo Jota to the deck to hand the visitors the penalty from which Salah had won the game.
That was not the last act of this absorbing contest, substitute Jose Maria Gimenez felled by Jota in the box. Referee Daniel Siebert initially awarded a penalty to the home side, only to reverse his decision after checking the monitor. In doing so he helped to secure Liverpool another win on the ground where they won the 2019 Champions League final, a result that hands them a five point lead at the top of Group B. Their berth in the knockout stages will surely be secured soon.
Liverpool regret leaving Fabinho out
It could have been easier though. After 13 minutes this looked to be game over. A fortune deflection and a stunning volley felt like enough to kill Atletico Madrid off. If Liverpool needed another goal it would surely come. Yet, by the interval they must have felt relieved to have even made it to the break all square.
What changed? Atleti did not particularly have a hold in the possession battle and they were hardly winning all the duels against their Liverpool opposition. Crucially, though, when they turned and ran with the ball there was precious little security between Liverpool's lines.
With a vocal Wanda crowd urging them forward after Griezmann's contentious first goal, Atletico seemed to have the strength to impose themselves on their opposition. Felix ran at Keita knowing he could simply bully his opponent if he got too close to the ball. The Guinea international was firmly in Klopp's good books for the wonderful goal he scored, but when Liverpool are on the back foot it is fair to question whether he has the physicality to hold firm.
That is all the more crucial when he is placed on the right of the midfield three. Usually it would be Jordan Henderson in there, plugging gaps when Trent Alexander-Arnold surges forward. With Keita, suddenly Liverpool had two players whose natural instinct was to get up the pitch. It was no wonder Felix kept finding space to cause danger in that area and it took a fine save from Alisson to deny the young forward just before the break.
The answer was on the bench for Klopp. Bringing Fabinho into the fray earlier would have pushed Henderson back into the role where he is at his best and added bite across the pitch. What looked to be a clear channel from Atleti's area to the goal was plugged up after the interval with what is perhaps the Reds strongest XI in place.
It was not just the physicality that Liverpool were missing. That was not the cause of basic errors like Virgil van Dijk trying to play Thomas Lemar offside whilst Andrew Robertson was none the wiser.
They needed someone who would not get caught up in the drama, a cool head in midfield and in front of the defense, someone who could hold possession for a few minutes, drop in if one of the center backs went roving up the pitch. Had they had Fabinho after Griezmann's fortunate first he might have taken the sting out of the contest long before the drama ratcheted up. Liverpool might have won anyway but it would have been an easier night with their best midfielder in the side from the off.
Griezmann at his best
For the neutral's watching on it was cruel to lose Griezmann from this contest. Even when pitted against Salah, labelled the best player in the world by his manager on Saturday, he shone brightest of all. Had he completed this contest he might have won it for Atletico.
There was no malice in Griezmann's high boot that connected with Roberto Firmino's face – he even went to check on his opponent as he made his way off the pitch – but he knew as well as anyone that in such circumstances he was going to have to exit the contest.
Losing Griezmann was a cruel blow for Atletico, who were further opening up and who had just started to click into gear as a creative force. Rodrigo De Paul, Felix and Yannick Carrasco were darting this way and that off their central pivot of the France international, a relentless worker without possession and an incisive finisher with the ball at his feet.
This felt like it was shaping up to be the big moment where the 30 year old reintroduced himself on the biggest stage, a reminder of why so many clubs were queuing up alongside Barcelona to take him from Atletico Madrid in the first place. The touch that took him away from Van Dijk for his second goal was Griezmann at his very best, the finish perfectly struck across Alisson's body and into the bottom corner.
With him, Simeone's side looked like having the attacking guile to break down the Liverpool defense on at least one more occasion. Without him, no matter how much Carrasco proved his willingness to run himself to the bone, Atleti, probably rightly, concluded that a man down their best bet was to play for dead balls and see if they could nick a winner that way. They did not get a winner but they almost found an equalizer. Tt was hard to understand why Siebert saw enough on the VAR monitor to overturn his initial decision to hand out a penalty after a dead ball coming together between Jota and Atleti defender Gimenez. It was not the only questionable decision he would make but perhaps this VAR that favored Liverpool balanced out the earlier decision not to overturn Atletico's first goal when Lemar seemed to be interfering with play. Either way it was a fittingly tense end to an enthralling affair.