There have been plenty of doubts aired this season about whether Atletico Madrid were capable of reproducing their past glories, but on Tuesday against an all-conquering Liverpool, Diego Simeone’s side returned to their roots.
Their 1-0 win in the Champions League last-16 first leg was akin to a greatest hits set, containing all the ingredients of what has made Atletico so compelling in the last eight years under Simeone.
The cacophony of flares that greeted the team’s bus was their opening track, Saul Niguez’s fourth minute goal the smash hit, while Simeone, as usual clad in his all-black suit, was the excitable frontman, whipping up the crowd like Mick Jagger.
“I don’t know if Diego saw a lot of the game because he was constantly animating the crowd,” said Liverpool coach Juergen Klopp, partly in bewilderment but mostly in admiration.
Liverpool and Klopp’s previous club Borussia Dortmund are renowned for their atmospheres on European nights but the German coach was impressed.
“We speak about Anfield and the power a stadium can have and tonight we saw it,” he added.
Simeone added: “You don’t ever forget nights like this, one of the best teams around coming here and us winning. I can remember few nights like this in my eight years here. It was truly exciting.”
Atletico have built a reputation on upsetting the apple cart but they have endured a terrible season, losing to a third division team in the Copa del Rey, suffering numerous injuries and falling 13 points behind leaders Real Madrid in La Liga.
“Lagging behind in the league, out of the Copa and (former captains) with Diego Godin and Gabi gone, everything pointed to the end of an era,” said newspaper AS.
“Then suddenly, no. Against the hardest test of all, the best team in Europe, Simeone’s Atletico rose again and produced one of their best performances in years.”
El Pais added: “Even champions like Liverpool end up begging for mercy when faced with a dentist like Atletico.”
Atletico were euphoric after the final whistle, but they know the hardest part is still to come, 90 minutes at Liverpool’s coliseum. Klopp was talking up the power of his side’s stadium, warning ‘Welcome to Anfield’.
Liverpool’s 4-0 comeback win over Barcelona in last year’s semi-final will be in the back of Atletico’s minds, as will their own side’s 3-0 defeat to Juventus last season after beating the Italians 2-0 in Spain.
Simeone, though, was not willing to discuss the threat of Anfield, insisting: “Sincerely, I’m not thinking about that.”
This, after all, was a night to savour, the night his side were backed into a corner but came out swinging.