There’s been a slightly Spanish flavour to Liverpool’s recent Champions League success, with the club back at the Wanda Metropolitano this evening – the scene of their triumph in last season’s final victory over Tottenham, which itself followed perhaps the most sensational result of the club’s season as they beat Barcelona in that thrilling semi-final.
In Atletico Madrid tonight, however, they will be up against very different opponents and seem likely to face one of their biggest tests of the season against a defensively resolute side who relish the big games on this stage.
Of course, Atletico are not the side they once were, with many top players departing the club since they reached the Champions League final in 2013/14, and again in 2015/16. Diego Simeone remains, but many would justifiably argue that they’ve lost their mojo a little bit.
Still, despite being 13 points adrift of leaders Real Madrid in La Liga, they have conceded only 17 goals in 24 matches – second only to their inner-city rivals on 16. As with Simeone’s great sides of the last decade, you’ll be hard pushed to find a harder working or better drilled team in Europe.
In Mohamed Salah, Liverpool surely have the man to provide that moment of spark to settle what could be a close tie. While Atletico will surely not crumble like Barcelona did last season, that LFC front three has ripped teams to shreds in the Premier League all season long, giving the Reds an astonishing 25-point lead at the top of the table at the time of writing, albeit having played a game more.
Salah has arguably not been as explosive as that memorable debut season at Anfield, but he remains Liverpool’s secret weapon on this stage. The Egypt international is already the club’s third highest scorer in this competition on 20 goals, just two behind Michael Owen despite playing only 33 games. He scored in this stadium in last season’s final, and who knows what he might have done against Real Madrid in the previous year’s final if he hadn’t gone off injured early on.
In Liverpool’s six group stage games this season, Salah finished with four goals and two assists, showing he’s once again ready to fire Liverpool to glory in this competition.
Our last #UCL goal was a special one ?
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) February 18, 2020
Both his stats and playing style make his threat to Atletico comparable to that of Lionel Messi – another player that even their defence tends to struggle to keep out.
Liverpool don’t have a great head-to-head record against these opponents, winning just once in their previous four meetings, but rarely have they had a forward of Salah’s quality who rises to the occasion in quite the same way. Perhaps more than even Virgil van Dijk and Alisson, it is the signing of Salah in 2017 that kick-started the Reds’ resurgence as a European force, and they will surely look to him again to get them through this challenging tie.