The National - News
ATLETICO FACE MILAN TEST WITH KLOPP LIKELY KINGMAKER
▶ Liverpool are through from a tough Champions League Group B and can now help decide who also qualifies
Atletico Madrid versus Liverpool is the grudge that keeps giving. It’s the fixture where a missed handshake between respective managers can provoke a melodrama, where a sneery remark from one bench about the other festers as a source of resentment.
And Liverpool and Atletico need not be even playing in the same country, let alone against one another, for mutual suspicion to crackle.
Thanks to their pair of victories over an Atletico who were reduced to 10 men in both games, Liverpool have conquered Group B of the Uefa Champions League in double-quick time.
Their maximum points means that they are guaranteed to finish top. They now get to be kingmakers on Matchday 5 tonight over who might join them in the knockout phase.
Liverpool take on second-placed Porto at Anfield with the opportunity to rest players, to experiment, or to give valuable European experience to some of the emerging talent at the club that has been glimpsed over recent weeks. And the possibility of a weakened Liverpool alarms Atletico Madrid, who host AC Milan.
Atletico have a point less than Porto, so they know a Porto win at Anfield could push the Spanish champions a step further from reaching the next round.
Group B was always set up for a brutal denouement. Leaving aside the authority Jurgen Klopp’s team have established, the competition for a spot in the top two is as suspenseful as had been anticipated when the draw came up with this quartet of teams. The four clubs have been in a combined total of 25 European Cup finals.
Milan have won seven. They may have only a point from their four group matches, but they are not out of the race. They come to Madrid nursing some potent grumbles about refereeing in previous matches, and deep regrets that they were unable to hold on to leads against Liverpool or Diego Simeone’s Atletico.
But the pertinent gripes about officiating are Simeone’s. He was already spiky after Klopp revisited some scathing remarks about Atletico’s deep-lying, cagey, counter-attacking style that the Liverpool manager had made when Atletico came back from two goals behind to win a last-16 tie at Anfield in March 2020.
Then there was Simeone’s reluctance to shake Klopp’s hand – Simeone shakes no rivals’ hand, post-match, as a rule – after Antoine Griezmann had been shown a red card in the see-saw 3-2 Liverpool win in Madrid. Felipe was then dismissed in Liverpool’s 2-0 victory over Atletico at Anfield.
Felipe serves his suspension tonight, while Joao Felix is doubtful because of injury. Milan are missing Fikayo Tomori from the centre of their defence and Ante Rebic from the forward line, which, as manager Stefano Pioli pointed out, limits his attacking options in a fixture where only a win would maintain Milan’s hope of finishing in the top two.
“It means we only have three forwards available for two places,” Pioli said. He might have added that two of those three, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Olivier Giroud, have a combined age of 75 and have yet to play a full 90 minutes together for Milan.
Both Simeone and Pioli will be almost as curious about what line-up Klopp chooses against Porto at Anfield as about each other’s chosen XIs. “If Porto win, they can set up a ‘final’ against Atletico,” Klopp indirectly reminded his rival Simeone, although that ‘final’ in the last group game, when Porto host Atletico, would also need Atletico to match or better Porto’s result tonight.
And Klopp will not field a fullstrength Liverpool. Andy Robertson and Jordan Henderson are “okay” in fitness, said their manager but he cast doubt on their readiness.
“We have to line up a team to win a football game – we need stability,” he added, sensitive
to Atletico’s fears that Liverpool might ease up. “We always respect the competition, but we have to think about ourselves and our schedule first.”
Were Klopp to survey a Champions League last 16 without Atletico in it, it might look gentler. So might a knockout phase without Borussia Dortmund, who effectively play off for their survival, without the injured Erling Haaland, at Lisbon’s Sporting. Those two clubs are locked on six points each in a Group C that Ajax command with four wins.
A heavyweight could also tumble out of Group D where Sheriff Tiraspol, the Champions League debutants, will attempt in Moldova to repeat their stunning September victory over Real Madrid and potentially leapfrog the group leaders and second-placed Inter Milan, who host Shakhtar Donetsk.
We have to line up a team to win a football game. We respect the competition, but we have to think about ourselves JURGEN KLOPP