Can Anfield's 12th man propel Liverpool to Champions League quarters?
Image: Ruaraidh Gillies, CC BY-SA 2.0.
The power of Anfield!
Many European top teams have bowed to it. Some have fallen down flat before it. There's a long history of that, but the scariest part is, it's getting even more powerful. Juventus, Inter Milan, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Roma, Manchester City and Barcelona have all been put down, even embarrassed at the ground over the years. In all of these, last season's humiliation of Barca ranks up there, as the Spanish giants parade arguably the greatest player of all time. He was rendered harmless as the Merseysiders turned around a 3-0 first-leg deficit to win 4-3 on aggregate and progress to the Champions League final.
Of course, after downing the Blaugranes there was no stopping Jurgen Klopp’s men. They made light-work of Tottenham Hotspur in the final at the Wanda Metropolitano to secure a long-awaited sixth trophy in the competition. But when the Reds returned to the same venue for the first leg of the round of 16 fixture against Atletico this term, they met a different atmosphere. It was one that was so unnerving the team performed out of character. For a side renowned for scoring goals under the German tactician, it found penetrating the home team’s defence a near-impossible task.
Diego Simeone’s men did what they do best - score, and then lock up shop. And so that chapter ended. Fortunately for the Kop, there’s chapter two.
At a time when the Coronavirus outbreak is forcing games to be played behind closed doors around Europe, Anfield doors will be wide open this evening. How Simeone would have wished to play in an empty Anfield! Well, he will have to brace up for an intensely vociferous home crowd. Actually, the fans can’t wait to make their voice heard and heard loudly. As if the Spanish side needed any warning after witnessing what Barcelona went through last term, Klopp and some of his players have sounded the alarm on what to expect when Los Rojiblancos come visiting.
In fact, it has become the norm. The good thing for the home fans is, it has worked most of the time. Why? It rattles opponents, makes them uneasy, disjointed and out of sync. But on the other hand, it empowers the Liverpool players, emboldens and spurs them on. In that state, they easily overwhelm opponents. The team may have failed to break the record for most consecutive wins in the Premier League this season, but it has broken that of successive home wins for that very reason more than anything else. The latest 2-1 victory against Bournemouth extended the record to 22 straight wins at home and counting, after breaking it in the previous home game against West Ham. It's a new record in the English game...
Riding on this wave, can the team put Atletico to the sword and qualify for the quarter-final of the Champions League?
Simeone has made his name as an astute manager at the Spanish capital. But he has not followed the brand of football promoted by the likes of Pep Guardiola and Klopp. The Argentine has carved a niche for himself as a manager who sets up his team as a compact unit that is difficult to break down. Los Rojiblancos maintain defensive stability while hitting opponents on fast breaks that easily results in goals. Although the team has seen a reduction in the number of goals scored this season due to the departure of Antoine Greizmann and Diego Costa’s poor form, the template has remained the same.
It was executed to perfection against Liverpool in the first leg, but perhaps the biggest test of the team’s resilience will be at Anfield today. The soon-to-be-crowned Premier League champions will come out guns blazing from the blast of the whistle and will look to wipe off the one-goal advantage from the first leg as fast as possible. If Atletico survives the first ten to twenty minutes without going a goal down, the team can hope for something. If not, it could be all over for the unwelcome visitors very quickly.
But not having the full complement of his team to call upon could prove a huge drawback for the German gaffer. Goalkeeper Alisson Becker is set to miss the game due to a hip injury. Adrian has usually been a reliable pair of hands as a replacement. But the Spaniard’s performance against Chelsea in the FA Cup defeat leaves much to be desired.
However, the team could rely on its strong defence to keep the opponents at bay. Led by Virgil van Dijk who is flanked by arguably the best full-backs in world football at the moment, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, Liverpool’s back line can make the difference in any game. With captain Jordan Henderson expected to return in midfield, that offers another boost. It’s not mere coincidence that the team lost back-to-back matches for the first time this season while he was sidelined with an injury.
But the front three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane will be there to seal the deal. Cheered on by their irrepressible fans, they can overcome any obstacle. Jan Oblak, Stefan Savic, Filipe Monteiro, Kieran Trippier, Jose Gimenez, whatever the line-up Simeone decides to use in defence will come under heavy bombardment. So it will be an uphill task for Atletico from kick-off. The scales are tipped firmly against the Spanish side from the get-go. But this is football, where anything can still happen. ..