MADRID-based journalist Brendan Boyle (@BrendyBoyle) takes a look at Atletico Madrid's prospects ahead of their Champions League showdown with Liverpool.
Atletico Madrid v Liverpool | Tuesday 18th February 2020, 20:00 | BT Sport
The overriding feeling here in Madrid amongst Atlético fans is fear. Liverpool’s astounding run over the last couple of years has not gone unnoticed in Spain and there is huge respect for Jurgen Klopp’s aggressive style and potent attack.
However, the pessimism which hangs over the Wanda Metropolitano is not solely down to the strength of the visitors; this is by some distance the weakest Diego Simeone side since he returned to the Spanish capital in December 2011.
Currently fourth in La Liga – which could be a lot worse – if it weren’t for the waywardness of rivals such as Valencia and Sevilla, this is far from a vintage Atlético Madrid.
This was always going to be a hugely complicated season given the scale of the transition at hand and the level of player turnover.
Kieran Trippier has been hampered by injuries in recent weeks; Renan Lodi has struggled badly after a bright start; and João Félix’s start to life at Atlético has most fans uneasy given the astronomical fee paid. Felipe is the only signing who can be considered a relative success, the Brazilian is a natural born leader and has been brilliant in defence.
Liverpool fans will be glad to know that there is nothing to fear about this Atlético Madrid. But where have Simeone’s team been struggling?
Lack of leaders
The Argentine coach no longer has “his” men to count on; the experience of Diego Godin, Raul Garcia Juanfran, Felipe Luis etc was crucial in these games, to be able to ride the pressure when on the ropes.
This side lacks those streetwise bastards, excuse my French, who always had the knack of sucking the life out of the game or bringing superior opponents down to their level. That lack of cunningness was evident at Mestalla once again Friday night as Atleti twice let a lead slip.
On the flanks
Los Colchoneros have been a mess in wide areas in recent weeks and this is where Liverpool will look to expose. Renan Lodi was described as a “sieve” on Saturday by Marca after his performance at Valencia.
Šime Vrsaljko has just returned from an ACL injury while Santiago Arias and Kieran Trippier continue to struggle with form and niggling injuries.
How the tables have turned. For years renowned as set-piece kings, Atlético are now no longer the threat they were when they had the likes of Diego Godin, Raul Garcia and Miranda in their ranks.
What was once a major strength of this side has now become a weakness: Simeone’s men have conceded nine goals from dead balls in total. Music to Big Virgil’s ears.
Modern day Atlético have never been known as a bastion of free-flowing attacking football but they’ve always had that bit of class up front, be it Sergio Aguero, Fernando Torres, Falcao, Antoine Griezmann. Without this character of player, they have struggled badly.
There is no apparent coherent movement or positional interchangeability and they are now one of the most predictable teams in La Liga. In their last two league outings at the Wanda Metropolitano, Atleti registered a combined one goal against Leganés and Granada – not good.
Atlético continue to play in pretty much the same way but this Cholismo-light is not enough against teams who are now fitter, more athletic and more tactically astute, i.e. Liverpool.
Atlético still usually have enough to beat the strugglers in La Liga but the lack of a collective unit which hunts and presses with maniacal intensity as in years gone by means that Atlético continue to come up short on the biggest of games.
Defending deep with two banks of four has enabled Los Colchoneros to stifle the “big two” in Spain but, since moving to the Wanda, they have been unable to beat Barcelona or Real Madrid. Atleti will have to significantly up the intensity and height of their press if they are to have any hope of an unlikely win. It will require a tremendous team effort.
Atleti look nervous and unsure all over the pitch at the moment and this has been particularly evident in defence. They shipped six goals on the road at Eibar, Cultural Leonesa and Valencia in recent weeks and would have lost even more points if it weren’t for the incredible Jan Oblak.
The Slovakian is going to be busy on Tuesday night.
First leg verdict
The atmosphere will be incredible at the Wanda and the man in black, Diego Pablo Simeone, will be kicking and heading every ball on the sideline. It will feel like the old days until the huge gap between the teams becomes quickly apparent.
Los Rojiblancos still resemble a Cholo Simeone team on the outside in terms of shape and style but they find themselves lost in transition, without the men to really optimise Simeone’s system or the coach to make the most of their new, young attacking talent.
Most Atleti fans would accept 0-0. Even that feels optimistic.