Diego Simeone was whipping the Estadio Metropolitano into a cauldron, the threat from Atlético Madrid was growing, and so Jürgen Klopp turned to James Milner for help in restoring Liverpool’s grip on a thrilling Champions League victory. Reliable and effective, as always, although that description does a disservice to another impressive and intelligent performance from the 35-year-old midfielder.
Klopp’s annoyance with Naby Keïta was clear before he replaced the £52.75m Guinea international with Fabinho at half-time. The manager and Keïta exchanged words over the gaps that Atlético were exploiting down Liverpool’s right and, despite striking a stunning volley past Jan Oblak, the midfielder’s weak challenges in the buildup to Antoine Griezmann’s two goals saw him pay with an early substitution. Klopp’s first response to the problem, however, was to replace Keïta with Milner on the right of Liverpool’s midfield three, where his strength, work rate and distribution eclipsed the contribution of the club’s former record signing.
Milner’s 63 minutes in Madrid were something of a throwback for a player whose continued importance to Liverpool and quality were underlined when deputising for the injured Trent Alexander-Arnold recently at right-back. In the first half he was a driving, creative presence on the left, where he combined instinctively with Andy Robertson, won free-kicks near the corner flag, pushed the team forward in response to Atlético’s equaliser and even popped up in the penalty area for Mohamed Salah’s opening goal. Milner’s response to whether he should have been awarded the goal was also emblematic of the consummate team player.
“My foot was dangling about,” he said when asked had he applied the final touch. “Goals are more important to Mo than me, so it’s another special goal for Mo and a great penalty from him as well. Obviously there was a bit of pressure on it. Him waiting, as always now with the VAR to check, makes it a bit more difficult in that atmosphere to score the penalty. I think he’s done it before at that end, hasn’t he? [Against Tottenham in the 2019 Champions League final.] Same result.”
The “dirty points” won in Spain, according to Klopp’s description, mean Liverpool would secure passage to the knockout stages with two games to spare if they inflict another defeat on Atlético in a fortnight. But Milner’s mind was already turning towards Old Trafford on Sunday, where Liverpool arrive having scored a remarkable 25 goals in seven away games this season.
He said before leaving Madrid: “Obviously there is work to do – nine points isn’t enough and we need to make sure we do get there, and winning the group is our number one aim. But we’re in a great position. It is a tough group and we saw [against Atlético] what happens if you don’t continue. We saw what happened in the first half when we conceded two goals and it turns 2-2. Now we’re in a strong position in the group but we need to keep our foot down and keep this run of form going. We’ve got plenty of games coming up thick and fast, so we need to keep performing.”