Liverpool fail to overturn first-leg deficit as Atalanta end Europa League hopes

By Sports Desk April 18, 2024

Liverpool could not conjure up another remarkable comeback when they needed it most as their 1-0 victory over Atalanta in Bergamo failed to salvage their Europa League hopes.

Mohamed Salah’s early penalty raised hopes all the pre-match reminiscence of the famous 4-0 against Barcelona in the 2019 Champions League semi-final would be replayed but their continued struggles in front of goal saw them exit 3-1 on aggregate.

Jurgen Klopp’s first season ended with defeat in the final of this competition and his last also culminated in more disappointment – the only major trophy he has not won in his nine years at Anfield.

His greater frustration will be the manner in which his side threw things away a week ago to make the prospect of bouncing back, without the power of Anfield as they had five years ago, a more remote possibility.

Klopp had urged his players, as he had against Barcelona, to “fail in the most beautiful way” and while some of their play in the opening 45 minutes – driven by a resurgent Trent Alexander-Arnold – was scintillating it brought only one goal.

Now Liverpool have just six games in the Premier League, trailing Manchester City by two points, in which to ensure their beloved manager does not leave with only the Carabao Cup from a season which teased a quadruple only a month ago.

On the positive side having Alexander-Arnold will help on that front and it is unlikely Atalanta had experienced anything like what he produced particularly in the first half.

Perhaps not surprisingly for a team entering the last-chance saloon, Liverpool set off at a rapid pace but it was not so much the intensity of their approach but the whirlwind they generated with the perpetual motion.

With Alexander-Arnold making his first start since mid-February after injury the team dynamic changed dramatically as the defender was given licence to roam and create.

However, it was from more orthodox right side from which he won the penalty with a cross which hit the arm of Matteo Ruggeri after Luis Diaz had raced down the left and cut inside.

After the inevitable VAR check Salah stepped up to send goalkeeper Juan Musso the wrong way – and in a nice piece of symmetry in the same seventh minute in which Divock Origi sparked the comeback against Barca.

Unfortunately that is where the similarities ended as Musso was more alert to smother Diaz before he could get a shot off from Cody Gakpo’s one-move turn and pass.

The movement from the players was dizzying at times as the fluid switching of positions regularly saw Salah playing deeper and more central with Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson both popping up in the centre-forward role – when the former was not dictating play from deep or the latter was playing as a left-winger.

Salah has been well below his best since his own return from injury in February and he never looked comfortable when put clean through by Gakpo, playing a key part in the continuing the merry-go-round, and his lob over Musso never looked like troubling the goal.

The hosts had taken a good 25 minutes to get to grips with the maelstrom which threatened to engulf them but Aleksei Miranchuk scuffed wide their only shot of the half with an offside flag denying Teun Koopmeiners.

Atalanta centre-back Isak Hien was perhaps fortunate to only be booked for deliberate handball to stop Diaz running through onto Salah’s pass shortly before half-time and the interval offered them some respite.

They actually had the better chances of the second half, Ederson and Koopmeiners both shooting straight at Alisson Becker.

With 25 minutes to go, Klopp gambled and introduced Diogo Jota and Darwin Nunez but the fluency of the first half had already disappeared and the changes only compounded that.

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