Midway through this second leg, as the black shirts fell back into their carefully-stitched patterns, as Liverpool’s players struggled a little in their familiar home spaces, it was hard to avoid the feeling of a pair of hands reaching almost imperceptibly for the lapels, the clavicle, and finally the throat. This was a beautifully controlled strangulation, enacted in plain sight by Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid.
But it was also a heist, a rearguard victory during which the Atlético goal seemed to be protected by some invisible membrane, sealed within a kind of high-strength footballing clingfilm.
Even the details of their 3-2 win at Anfield made little sense. João Félix had touched the ball 22 times by the time this game reached the seventh minute of extra time, with the score 2-0 to Liverpool.
Through all this Félix had mooched. He’d looked sad. He’d bounced off defenders, and generally played like £110m of slouchy teenager. Félix, who loves to pass, had completed 18 passes. At which point he played the pass that killed this tie, all but eliminated the champions of Europe, and helped produce the key stroke in a slow-burn, slightly mind-bending piece of floodlit robbery .
Out of nowhere Adrián played a horrible defensive clearance straight to Félix’s feet. At which point Félix became a shark, playing a lovely no-look pass that left Marcos Llorente in space in front of goal. His shot was low and hard into the corner. Anfield fell quiet for the first time on the night, the hush broken by the gathering roars of the away corner.
Make no mistake this was not a masterful rearguard. It was not some sublime act of defensive nihilism. Instead it was an act of hanging on by your fingernails. Liverpool had 35 shots at goal. Has anyone ever had 35 shots and been knocked out of a cup competition? Trent Alexander-Arnold crossed the ball 25 times. Has anyone ever done this, crossed the ball 25 times and still lost?
If this wasn’t a heist it was something else, a mystery. Time and again at Anfield Liverpool seemed to be close to wrenching the night their way. Time and again, something else happened instead. How do you win a game this many times, find the space, the moment, the opening, but still manage to lose it?
Perhaps the Atlético aura played a part. There had been a sense before tonight of mild overkill, a feeling the surrounding noise had turned Atlético into something monsterish, a bunch of footballing Visigoths here to wipe their great muddy boots on the Axminster. In reality Atlético’s only away Champions League clean sheets in the last two seasons have come against Lokomotiv Moscow and Club Brugge.
Still, though, they carried a sense of defiance here. At kick-off Anfield had been alive with that familiar sense of event-glamour before kick-off, the low white lights on the lip of the stand picking out the driving rain. Jordan Henderson was back in the midfield three. Up front for Atlético Félix was in the company of Beowulf himself, the terrible Diego Costa, who did nothing here in his 55 minutes except mutter constantly in the ear of the referee..
But then Atlético are unlike any other opponent in European football. This is football played through a heavy fog: hang-over football, an activity designed to send a knot of pain throbbing across your temples. On his touchline Simeone pranced and prowled, dressed as ever like a minor ensemble cast member of the Sopranos, here to buy you a drink then stab you in the throat with an oyster knife
As early as the first 10 minutes Anfield was already howling and whistling and seething as Atlético’s players took the steam out of the air, wandered towards free-kicks and throw-ins, held the ball just ;long enough to kill the moment. Félix was pushed in the back, gently, by Joe Gomez and reeled away like a crash test dummy being hurled around the interior of a collapsed Mini Metro.
To their credit Liverpool didn’t panic, didn’t get sucked in, began instead to run through their own patterns.
As ever Alexander-Arnold was the most obvious source of incision, given surprising amounts of space to cross from the right. Renan Lodi struggled to keep Mo Salah under control. Liverpool took the lead through Gigi Wijnaldum’s wonderful header. But they couldn’t score again. Jan Oblak, who had an astonishing game, seemed to be playing through a haze of destiny. In the end it fell to Félix to provide that moment when an act of resistance hardened into something more.
Atlético deserved it too, for all their desperation defending. There is a kind of poetry in this type of performance and this kind of result, the fact that elite level club football can still produce such a profound contrast of styles and fortunes
And so that run is over. Goodbye to all that for another year, to Allez Allez Allez, to those red-shirted away days, to the feeling that Jürgen Klopp really does have his own kind of magic in this competition. There were fine performances all over the pitch. Wijnaldum had a quietly majestic game. Alexander-Arnold was sublime again. Salah just kept running and really could have scored four. For now we’ll always have Madrid, Rome, Barcelona – and now the heist of Anfield, a night when Liverpool really did throw everything into their own extended farewell.