Jürgen Klopp was unrepentant. Atalanta, appropriately inspired by a No 10 from Buenos Aires, not only inflicted Liverpool’s first home defeat in the group stages of the Champions League for over six years, they made the Premier League champions look toothless. “We made five changes and it was very important we did that,” the Liverpool manager insisted. “It didn’t work out and that is part of the deal. But I would do it again.”
Klopp prioritised some fresher legs at Brighton in Saturday’s early kick-off over the strongest possible chance of qualifying for the knockout phase with two games to spare, two games that would give him plenty more opportunity to rest weary and fragile limbs. He lost.
Liverpool did not have a shot on target all night and, in truth, never looked like scoring as Atalanta, humiliated 5-0 on home soil when the teams met three weeks ago, celebrated coach Gian Piero Gasperini’s 200th game in charge with a deserved win that rejuvenated their prospects of progressing.
Their Argentinian captain, Alejandro Gómez, was at the heart of both goals as the Italians ended Liverpool’s Anfield winning streak this season and became the first team since Real Madrid in October 2014 to win here in the group stages. “This will be written in the pages of our history,” said Gasperini. “This is perhaps the biggest victory in our history and certainly our most prestigious.”
After a moment’s silence for the late, great Diego Maradona, Atalanta made a determined start, clearly intent on making amends for the 5-0 rout and helped in no small part by Klopp’s changes. Mohamed Salah returned after his Covid-19 self-isolation period but Liverpool’s selection was clearly made with Brighton in mind.
Neco Williams and Rhys Williams, two of three teenagers in Liverpool’s starting line-up along with Curtis Jones, featured in defence. Summer signing Kostas Tsimikas replaced Andy Robertson at left-back and Divock Origi was handed a rare chance to impress at centre-forward. Liverpool’s first-half performance lacked any fluency or control as a consequence, although there appeared no mitigating factors as far as Klopp was concerned.
The Liverpool manager berated his players throughout the opening 45 minutes and sprinted down the tunnel as soon as the half-time whistle blew in readiness for a few home truths. A clean sheet at least offered Liverpool something to build on in the second half, and the contest was in desperate need of something.
The hosts had one shot at the Atalanta goal in the first half. It took 44 minutes to arrive and sailed high over Pierluigi Gollini’s crossbar from Salah’s right boot after James Milner, Jones and Tsimikas combined to work a Liverpool free-kick into the penalty area.
Salah did create the first chance of the game but with a wayward pass across his own half that fell straight to Atalanta forward Josip Ilicic. The Slovenian international had space to attack Rhys Williams and cut inside onto his left foot, but his effort drifted off target. Robin Gosens was much closer to opening the scoring for the Italians when released down the left by a lofted ball out of defence from Cristian Romero.
With no-one making a run into the Liverpool area, Gosens elected to go it alone with an audacious, powerful drive towards Alisson’s near post. The Brazilian keeper ensured he was not caught out with a late reaction save. Gómez then drove a yard wide from the edge of the area after Neco Williams had been dispossessed and Ilicic embarrassed himself with a pathetic dive for a penalty after being tickled on the arm by Georginio Wijnaldum. Neither the referee nor VAR were conned.
Klopp gave his much-changed team opportunity to improve in the second half but 13 minutes in, he had seen enough. Four substitutes were lined up to come on in the 58th minute but while Roberto Firmino, Diogo Jota, Fabinho and Robertson warmed up on the touchline, Atalanta broke the deadlock.
Gómez, the most creative talent on show, was at the heart of the breakthrough, whipping over a delightful cross from the left after the visitors had built up play patiently through midfield. Ilicic, reading his captain’s intention perfectly, slid in behind the Liverpool defence to convert on the volley. Klopp’s four subs duly arrived but were still feeling their way into the game when Atalanta struck again, and from a similar source.
From another inviting Gómez cross from the left, Hans Hateboer headed back across goal and Gosens arrived unmarked to beat Alisson with a controlled volley from 10 yards. There would be no reaction from Liverpool. Flat throughout, they will require marked improvement when Ajax visit next week.