“We started winning the game at the roundabout when we arrived on the bus and we saw so many fans, which was the best reception I’ve seen in my eight years here,” he said, referring to the highway to hell that the fans created with red flares as the team bus glided towards the stadium through a sea of support before the match.
But that’s not actually true. This match was won even earlier than that. It was won at the club’s training ground in Majadahonda. It was won on Simeone and his assistant Mono Burgos’ tactics board.
Atleti’s starting line-up sent eyebrows across Madrid several inches higher. It was expected that Santiago Arias would play at right-back in place of the injured Kieran Trippier and Saul at left-back in place of the out-of-form Renan Lodi. But the Argentine instead decided to opt for Sime Vrsaljko, only just returning from a long-term injury, on the right and to trust the young Lodi at left-back.
This was absolutely key.
Given how decisive Liverpool’s full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson are, Atleti were always going to need stellar displays at full-back and they got two of them, with Vrsaljko and Lodi two of the best players on the pitch.
Lodi was a particular standout, going up against Alexander-Arnold and also Mohamed Salah. The Englishman and the Egyptian didn’t have their best performances, with Alexander-Arnold losing possession 36 times and with Salah doing so 25 times, but this was largely because of the pressure put on them by the energetic Lodi.
Simeone’s trust in Lodi also paid off in the goal. By believing in the 21-year-old left-back and not deciding to deploy Saul on the left of defence, this meant that the Spaniard could play in his best position in central midfield and he was effective there. Saul also scored the goal at the fourth minute corner and he surely wouldn’t have been there had he been given a left-back assignment.
That’s because Atleti reacted to Liverpool’s counter-attacking threat by keeping five men back outside the box – which was packed with all 11 Liverpool players – for their own corner kick. Lodi was part of this safety net alongside Vrsaljko, Thomas Partey, Angel Correa and Thomas Lemar.
Saul, therefore, was in the penalty area mix and added to his big-game record. He really does love an important Champions League goal, as evidenced by the fact that he has scored a La Liga goal every 777 minutes over his career, opposed to one Champions League goal every 392 minutes.
Once the goal was scored, it was all about defending the lead and there is no better team at doing this than Atletico Madrid. Even though this was an all-new back line of four different defenders compared to the one that defeated Juventus 2-0 at this same stage last year, Los Rojiblancos once again showed how resilient they can be. Simeone was able to take a new group of players and turn them into the kinds of warriors he has had in the past.
Heads, legs, chests and more were flung at every Liverpool ball, forming a defensive wall that meant Jan Oblak didn’t actually have to make a single save in this match. Liverpool, the team who had averaged 6.2 shots on target per Premier League game and 6.0 shots on target per Champions League game this season, didn’t get off a single shot on target at the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano.
It was his first ever time going up against Jurgen Klopp, the current coach of the year, in a competitive fixture and Simeone showed he’s still got it.Euan McTear
Simeone even made a rare half-time substitution in this game, taking off Lemar to bring on Marcos Llorente, adding an extra defensive body to the mix. This worked too, while his other two substitutions were also worthy of praise as he introduced Vitolo’s pace and energy for the tiring Alvaro Morata at the right moment and he gave Diego Costa the last 13 minutes, the perfect re-introduction for the veteran striker who has been out injured since November.
Everything Simeone did in this game, from the pre-match preparation to the line-up to the in-game adjustments was perfect. He even got the crowd going, flapping his arms like a pterodactyl to raise the decibel levels, and at one point he actually got one ballboy near him to send a message to another ballboy behind the goal who had just returned the ball to Liverpool too quickly.
This was Atletico Madrid’s victory and this was Simeone’s victory. It was his first ever time going up against Jurgen Klopp, the current coach of the year, in a competitive fixture and Simeone showed he’s still got it.