Liverpool look unstoppable. Jurgen Klopp's team are reigning UEFA Champions League holders. They're on track to smash Manchester City's record 100-points tally in the Premier League and are on course to emulate Arsene Wenger's "Invincibles" from the 2003-2004 campaign in going unbeaten all season long.
It's difficult to detect a weakness in them. They're a fearsome side with several ways to fillet opposition teams and the deadliest attacking trident in world football—Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane.
Atletico Madrid—who they face in the UEFA Champions League at the Wanda Metropolitano on Tuesday—would be forgiven for running scared, but it's not something a Diego Simeone team would ever entertain.
"Atletico is not afraid of Liverpool," says Patricia Cazon, a journalist with Diario AS. "Atletico is never afraid of an opponent because it's such a competitive team. It doesn't matter how well, or not, the team is playing at the moment. It never looks for excuses, and whoever thinks that all Liverpool has to do is show up because they're Liverpool and what they've achieved elsewhere is totally wrong. There's nothing more distinctive about Simeone's team than its competitive spirit.
"Sure, it will be a very difficult challenge for Atletico, but it will be similar to the challenge Atletico faced last season at the same stage of the competition against Juventus, a team in excellent form who also had a bogeyman in their ranks, Cristiano Ronaldo, who, I suppose, learnt from his mistakes when he came out for the second leg."
In the first leg of that encounter, Juventus were overrun, losing 2-0, in a game that could easily have finished 4-0. Atletico Madrid were ravenous. Diego Costa—who missed the second leg through suspension, which Juventus won 3-0 to proceed to the next round—bullied Juve's defence into submission. It was like he set a flame under the whole Atletico team.
Costa, 31, will be vital for Atletico's chances against Liverpool, but, as they say in Spain, the panther doesn't kill anymore. Since returning to play for the club—who he helped to win a historic league title in 2014 before moving to Chelsea, where he won another two championships—in January 2018, and having had to sit out several months because of a UEFA ban on Atleti registering players, Costa has only scored seven league goals.
Costa's second act with Atletico has been beset with a crisis of confidence—which has cost him his starting place—suspensions, including a hefty eight-game ban for getting sent off against Barcelona in a pivotal league game last spring, and a series of injuries.
If he plays against Liverpool, it will be Costa's first game back since November, owing to a neck injury that required surgery.
Simeone—conscious that Costa is his embodiment on the pitch and is capable of one-off big performances like, for example, the four goals he rattled past Real Madrid's defence in a devastating hour's work last summer in New Jersey—is hoping he can get another big night out of him. The Liverpool match has been the only thing on Costa's mind.
"The club has been preparing Diego Costa for this match for the last three months," says Cazon. "He wasn't in the squad against Valencia [for Atletico's 2-2 draw in the league on Friday] because they want to keep him on ice for Liverpool. It is not the same Diego Costa who was at Chelsea, yeah. It is not the same Diego Costa who scored 27 goals to help Atletico win the league title in 2014, yeah, but it's still Diego Costa, man!
"His strength, his guts, is contagious. He's crazy to play this game. Simeone is putting all his chips on Costa, and Liverpool would be advised to recall what Diego Costa did to Juventus in the first leg of the corresponding fixture last season."
It is a shaky foundation—given Costa's lack of fitness—for Atletico to build their hopes on, but they have few other attacking options to look towards. Only Athletic Bilbao have scored fewer goals than Atletico Madrid, who sit in fourth place on goal difference, in the top half of the Spanish league table this season.
Atletico sorely miss the 30-odd goals a season Antoine Griezmann, who left for Barcelona last summer, guaranteed. Alvaro Morata is the club's top scorer this season, but he has only scored seven times in the league. Joao Felix—the club's most expensive signing in its history when he joined during the summer—has yet to catch fire and is also a fitness doubt for the Liverpool game.
"Joao Felix—whatever about the way 'Cholo' [Simeone] defends him in public—is not at the races," says Javier Najera, president of Atletica Barajas, an Atletico Madrid supporters' group.
"We've seen his quality in little drops, a few good dribbles, a few assists. A guy his age shouldn't have his poor physical conditioning, his lack of resistance. How is it possible that you can have a guy like Hector Herrera, who is about to turn 30, who can play Wednesdays and Sundays, and this Joao Felix, a 20-year-old, has nothing left in his boots in the 60th minute of every game?
"It's not disappointing—it's beyond that when you consider his transfer fee. Look at Real Madrid. They paid about €40 million each for Vinicius Jr. and Rodrygo. It's a lot for their age, but it's an investment, and it's nothing compared to the €127 million we paid for Joao Felix, who could end up like Thomas Lemar, who we bought for €70 million and now we can't get half the price for him two years later."
Saul, an Atletico Madrid youth academy star who the club made one of their foundation stones when they tied him to a nine-year contract in 2017, has also been underperforming for the last couple of seasons and has dropped off the radar for recent Spain national squad selections.
"In terms of who is Atletico's most disappointing player this season, maybe it's Saul," says Euan McTear, author of Hijacking La Liga: How Atletico Madrid Broke Barcelona and Real Madrid's Duopoly on Spanish Football. "Saul has been so consistent for so long. He's the player who has played the most minutes of any player from any team in La Liga this season.
"He's been fine. He hasn't been bad but he's never taken the step forward we expected, the way we thought he would a few years ago when, for example, he scored that goal against Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-final in 2016. It was expected by this point that he would be an absolute leader for the team—and one of the top players in Spain—but he's never really kicked on."
In a year of transition, Atletico—who remarkably have a higher wage bill than Liverpool—lost several legendary players last summer, including Griezmann, team captain Diego Godin, Juanfran and Felipe Luis, as well as Rodri and Lucas Hernandez. Their replacements have yet to impress, with the exception perhaps of Kieran Trippier, who will likely miss the Liverpool game through injury, and central defender Felipe, a 30-year-old signing from Porto.
The difficulty Renan Lodi—a 21-year-old recruit from Brazil—is having tying down the left flank of Atletico's defence is a grave concern, especially given 37 per cent of Liverpool's goals in the Premier League this season come from that zone of the pitch where Salah likes to wreak havoc.
In 29 games, Lodi has been withdrawn 10 times by Simeone. And there is no natural replacement for him; Saul, for example, had to slot in for Lodi when he was withdrawn early in the second half against Valencia on Friday. It is one of several headaches Simeone has to contend with, along with the whistling Simeone has been receiving from Atletico's fans for the first time in his nine-season reign as manager of Atletico.
"When Atletico were in a recent poor run of form after the Spanish Super Cup final defeat in January, with no wins in five games—which they got out of with a win against Granada—there were some fans chanting at the Wanda during a game, 'Ole, ole, ole, Cholo Simeone!,' but there were some whistles, too," says McTear.
"The fanbase is a bit divided on the Simeone question, but when it comes to a game like this against Liverpool, I don't think there is anyone else you'd want to be geeing the players up in the dressing room more than Simeone. He's done it before so many times. So many of Atletico's best performances have been in the Champions League, even look at the 2-0 versus Juventus last season at home. Simeone can squeeze it out of them."
The odds over two legs are stacked against them. Najera, like many Atletico fans, is worried about the return game at Anfield, but at home, Atletico are almost impregnable: In 33 UEFA Champions League games under Simeone, Atletico have only lost twice, both times in pool games. Simeone will hope Liverpool are met with a wall of sound tomorrow night.
"The Wanda has the same roar as Atletico's old stadium, the Vicente Calderon," says Cazon. "It's a stadium that acoustically can be a bit poor sometimes, but it has one thing that is very favourable, the bouncing sound you get on the pitch is like a pressure cooker—it can be very disorientating for the footballers. It's going to be Simeone's biggest challenge this season, but he's faced bigger challenges before."
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz