Liverpool 1 (4): Firmino (pen) 83’
Atletico Madrid 1 (5): Bare 33’
Entering tonight’s Audi Cup final against Atletico Madrid, Liverpool had enjoyed an unbeaten run in their preseason preparations, the highlight of which was their 3-0 dismantling of their hosts Bayern München the night before. Despite a transfer window in which not everything has gone Liverpool’s way, Jürgen Klopp’s squad has provided more evidence that, on their day, this squad can stand toe-to-toe with the best. The question has always been whether they can do that once the fixture schedule and inevitable injuries take their toll.
This match was supposed to provide some answers to that question. Unsurprisingly, there was a slew of changes to the lineup that started the prior evening’s match. Emre Can and Sadio Mané made reappearances, but with new faces everywhere else on the pitch, this was a chance for the backups to show what they could do. Danny Ward got the start in goal, while Dominic Solanke, Ben Woodburn and the newly recovered duo of James Milner and Joe Gomez were also called into action.
Despite this being an (admittedly friendly) final featuring a pugnacious Atletico side, the contest struggled in its early phases to match the excitement of yesterday’s proceedings. There was clearly some initial creakiness to the play, particularly with Flanagan and Milner, and Liverpool struggled to settle into a comfortable rhythm while being relentless harried by Diego Simeone’s side. Which is not to say that Atletico were putting on a display – their focus appeared to be on frustrating Liverpool, and in that respect, they were reasonably successful.
Still, there were some nice moments from the second string. Young Woodburn took up some nice positions in the early stages but his teammates couldn’t consistently find him. Mané eventually did so, and the cross from Woodburn was just about brushed by Solanke, but the striker’s effort was slightly off target. Minutes later, a great cross to the back post by Adam Lallana allowed Woodburn to pull off an acrobatic volley in space, but the shot goes wide.
Atletico, for their part, were performing as advertised. Aggressive and organized without the ball, they also forced Klavan and Gomez into a few nervy clearances with balls over the top. It was shaping to be the type of match Liverpool will undoubtedly find themselves in at various junctures this season, so in many ways, this was a good test. Mané and Milner picked up yellow cards in quick succession midway through the half for a bit of gamesmanship and a less-than-ideal challenge respectively. When the stakes are real, the squad will need to minimize this sort of thing against this sort of opposition.
The breakthrough came from Atletico, in the 33rd minute. From a central position, the ball was shunted to an open player on the right. From the cross, Ward did very well to make an instinctive save from the initial effort, but could only divert the ball onto his own crossbar. Keidi Bare was in a perfect position to head in the rebound, and with Klavan guilty of being a bit of bystander, there was precious little Ward could do about that. Atletico had their 1-0 lead, and against this Simeone’s side, this was looking to be a pretty steep mountain to climb.
Precious little else of note happened during the first half. Atletico are well versed in killing off games from this vantage point, and despite more willing running from Mané, Liverpool were unable to create anything. The referee directed the players to their dressing rooms, and when they re-emerged, Firmino, Henderson, Grujic, Robertson, Matip, and Kent had been summoned to replace Milner, Mané, Lallana, Can, Flanagan, and Woodburn.
From the restart, there was clearly a new level of verve shown by Liverpool’s players, and Henderson’s searching pass to Solanke – whose shot was deflected – signaled an intent to test Atletico just a bit more. Klopp’s side arguably had the better possession in the early minutes of the second half, and showed more bite in the final third than they did in the first, but was still unable to really trouble Atletico.
A quarter of an hour into the restart, Simeone decided to bring on a few of the big names, introducing human hairstyling catastrophe Antoine Griezmann, Filipe Luis, and Gabi. With the match settling into the same dreary stalemate, it was Klopp’s turn to play some cards of his own, signaling for Origi and Ejaria to come on in place of Solanke and Wijnaldum. Simeone’s response was to summon Fernando Torres, but not before Andy Robertson gave Atletico a scare by putting in a nice ball from the left which Gimenez had to awkwardly clear, almost putting one in his own goal in the process.
The key moment of the second half occurred courtesy of Divock Origi. The striker received the ball in a central position within the box, and with three defenders surrounding him, rode the first hacked challenge before going to ground unassisted a split second later. Had he gone down with the first challenge, Atletico might have had fewer complaints, but as things stood, they were justifiably incensed when the referee pointed to the spot. Firmino stepped up to coolly convert, and Liverpool were now on an even footing.
There was a little bit more spice in the seven or so minutes that remained, and with some of their big guns on the pitch, Atletico were inclined to play a little bit more football on the counter. There was a late sequence of chances for the Spanish side but another nice save from Ward to divert the ball followed by an effort that was just barely over the bar preserved the scoreline.
Penalties then, and to cut to the chase, Henderson was the only player on either side who failed to convert. Atletico were presented with the Audi Cup, which Arsène Wenger assures us is just like a trophy, and Liverpool had to content themselves with second place.
The German excursion showed us that there’s great promise in the Salah-Mané axis, that Coutinho is still invaluable to this club, that everything we thought about Daniel Sturridge remains true, that the squad still could use depth and quality, and that the kids can play. One more friendly with Athletic Bilbao remains, and then it’s on to Watford and the matches that count.