On paper Liverpool face a big Champions League challenge but there are strong signs that Atlético Madrid aren't the Champions League force of old, writes Andy Brassell
"On paper, this is where it gets real for The Reds. Yet they have less to prove – to themselves, as much as to the wider world – than Diego Simeone’s side do in the elite European arena."
Ruthless Liverpool can expose Atletico's weaknesses
Atletico Madrid 3.613/5 v Liverpool 2.35/4, draw 3.45
Live on BT Sport, Tuesday, 20:00
Having abstained from the biggest excesses of a summer transfer window in which Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo moved, not to mention Manchester City and Chelsea's big splashes in the market, it has been suggested Liverpool have been slept on so far this season. No more.
Jürgen Klopp's team may have been expected to beat Watford at the weekend but the sheer ruthlessness with which they put their hosts to the sword underlined that the 2020 Premier League champions have banished last season's uncertainties.
What will more concern Atlético Madrid is that there have been plenty of sightings of Liverpool's rampant best in a Champions League context already this season.
On paper, this Tuesday is where it gets real for The Reds. Yet they have less to prove - to themselves, as much as to the wider world - than Diego Simeone's side do in the elite European arena. We think of Atlético as one of the very best in this context, but to take Simeone's era as one continuous dynasty of a team is not quite right.
The group that reached finals (and came agonisingly close to winning) in 2014 and 2016 is no more, and hasn't been for a while, despite the continued presence of Koke and José María Giménez among a few others, and the return of Antoine Griezmann. Atlético have undergone a huge rebuild and the continued presence of Simeone can cloud that. The basic principles of his philosophy remained but are now interpreted by a completely different set of protagonists - and despite last season's La Liga win, the new wave haven't quite translated domestic success to authority in the Champions League just yet.
Ever since that meek surrender at Juventus in the last 16 in 2019, it has been a case of diminishing European returns for Atleti. The last side of substance they beat in the competition was Liverpool in the memorable last 16 tie from 2020 - they finished 90 minutes of the second leg at Anfield 1-0 down of course, before improbably prevailing in extra-time. In their quarter-final in Lisbon that followed that, they were outthought and outfought by relative novices in RB Leipzig.
Struggling so far this campaign
The start of this campaign has not looked much more promising. In the opening group match they were fortunate not to lose at home to Porto, the same opposition that Liverpool put away with ease on Matchday Two, a combination of the brilliance of Klopp's side and a poor performance from the hosts which prompted their coach Sérgio Conceição to suggest his resigning. They then needed a debatable last-gasp penalty from Luís Suarez to win at a Milan team that played an hour with ten men (and who were running roughshod over Simeone's team in the early stages when numerical parity reigned).
With a chastening last experience against Premier League opposition fresh in the mind - they were barely even second-best against Chelsea in spring - Atlético will need the backing of a fully-charged Wanda Metropolitano, recently refilled to capacity. It will be far from easy against the Premier League's top scorers, and the mighty Mo Salah.
Rested Atalanta can win at Old Trafford
Manchester United 1.814/5 v Atalanta 4.77/2, draw 4.216/5
Live on BT Sport, Wednesday, 20:00
United's defeat at Leicester has added a little more pressure to Atalanta's arrival to Old Trafford - and they'll need a better performance than they produced for Villarreal's visit, a game in which they were very fortunate. The bad news for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is that the Serie A side are firing again, are adept and aggressive on the road and coasted to a 4-1 win at Empoli on Sunday whilst having the luxury of resting Ruslan Malinovskiy and Duvan Zapata from the XI.
Amsterdam to deliver drama again
Ajax 2.285/4 v Borussia Dortmund 3.185/40, draw 4.1
live on BT Sport Extra, Tuesday, 20:00
This is one of the ties of the round between two richly talented teams, and Ajax have started this Champions League campaign in the same sort of adventurous vein as they did their brilliant 2018/19 season that took them to the brink of the final. Dortmund, with Erling Haaland back fit and scoring twice against Mainz on Saturday, showed elsewhere in that game that their lackadaisical defending shows little sign of improving, which is what just separates them from Europe's elite.
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