Diego Simeone masterminded a classic Atletico Madrid rearguard action to frustrate holders Liverpool in the first leg of the last 16 in the 2019/20 UEFA Champions League on Tuesday night.
Atleti won 1-0 in the Spanish capital on a night Liverpool forward Sadio Mane will want to forget. He was booked and endured several subsequent attempts to bait him into further rash action until Reds boss Jurgen Klopp removed the prolific No. 10 for his own protection.
Mane wasn't the only big name to suffer on a night when Paris Saint-Germain lost 2-1 away to Borussia Dortmund. Neymar's goal in Germany wasn't enough for Les Parisiens to overcome a two-goal salvo from rising star Erling Haaland, the latest smart bargain signing by Dortmund's outstanding recruitment team.
Thomas Tuchel used to benefit from such shrewd scouting, but the 46-year-old knows expectations are different at PSG. He is struggling to meet those demands after another European setback for the megarich club desperate for success in this competition.
- Atletico Madrid 1-0 Liverpool
- Borussia Dortmund 2-1 PSG
Winner: Diego Simeone
Klopp has enjoyed the lion's share of press-led plaudits lavished upon members of the managerial fraternity this season. He's merited praise after Liverpool have followed up winning last season's Champions League by building a 25-point lead at the top of the Premier League.
By contrast, Simeone has lost some of his sparkle this season, with Atleti struggling to keep pace with Barcelona and Real Madrid in the La Liga title race. Simeone's group trails unfashionable Getafe in the table, while the defensive-minded Argentinian has struggled to get the best from flair players such as Thomas Lemar and club-record signing Joao Felix.
If ever there was a time for Simeone to remind everyone why he was once so highly rated, it was Tuesday. He faced a daunting, two-pronged challenge against the reigning champions.
First, Simeone needed to restrict time and space for a superb front three featuring Mane and Salah. A compact four across midfield, supplemented by one of two strikers dropping deep helped put Atletico's plan to negate into action:
Usually teams this stout defensively rely on a lone-striker formation, but Simeone trusted two men in attack. He partnered Alvaro Morata with Angel Correa and had the pair play wide to block Liverpool's raiding full-backs, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson.
Playing against a traditional strike partnership has quietly become a problem for the otherwise awesome Klopp machine this season:
Yet a 0-0 would still have been a good result for Liverpool. Atleti needed to find a way to breach a defence virtually impregnable in recent months.
The breakthrough came as early as the fourth minute when Saul Niguez profited from a mixup following a corner:
One goal was all Atleti needed to add Liverpool to a list of illustrious names that includes Arsenal, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Chelsea that have been thwarted by the Simeone blueprint.
Loser: Sadio Mane
Mane only returned from a hamstring problem on Saturday. Even so, his 30-minute cameo against Norwich City, which included scoring the winning goal at Carrow Road, hinted the Senegal international would quickly get back up to speed.
It was surprising when Mane appeared out of sorts even before he was booked in the 40th minute.
The foul on Sime Vrsaljko not only drew a yellow card, but it also prompted Atleti players to exaggerate any subsequent challenge Mane was involved in. Fearing his player may be lured into a lapse of judgement and sent off, Klopp withdrew Mane for Divock Origi at the break.
Origi was a hero in last season's campaign, seeing off Barcelona in the last four and scoring against Tottenham Hotspur in the final, but he couldn't pose the same threat Mane presents defences.
Afterwards, Klopp confirmed he had removed Mane for his own good:
The forward will need to keep his composure if he's going to vent his frustration upon Atleti during the second leg at Anfield on March 11.
Winner: Dortmund's Recruitment
Does anyone on the continent play the market better than Dortmund? Maybe Sevilla, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a club that strikes gold as often as the Bundesliga outfit.
Haaland became the latest "I can't believe how little he cost" budding star recruited by Dortmund when he signed from RB Leipzig for a mere £17.1 million in December. At the time, the 19-year-old Norwegian chose the German side despite interest from Manchester United.
Since then, Haaland has been relentless in his pursuit of goals and records in a Dortmund shirt:
His initial performances already put him in the bracket of gems Dortmund beat the competition to sign. They include Robert Lewandowski, Shinji Kagawa and Jadon Sancho to name but a few.
Dortmund are already casting an eye over Club Brugge winger Emmanuel Dennis as a potential replacement for Sancho, who is wanted by United and Chelsea, per HLN (h/t Jonathan Spencer of MailOnline).
Sancho, who cost £8 million, is now valued at £120 million, per TalkSport's Jake Bacon. This level of profit makes selling stars easy. So does Dortmund's knowledge they will simply find another for cheap.
Imagine how clever this club will be when it comes to cashing in on Haaland and recruiting his successor.
Loser: Thomas Tuchel
Luis Fernandez dubbed Tuchel PSG's "worst coach since the Qatari takeover," during an interview with DPA (h/t Goal). It may read like a harsh view to some, but there also will be plenty of supporters of the former PSG manager's opinion.
High-profile failings are becoming common on Tuchel's watch. Last season's infamous collapse against United at this stage should be a distant memory, but PSG fans will be fearing a repeat after a rough night in Dortmund.
Tuchel was once renowned for his artful, attacking brand of football. However, those qualities were distinctly absent from PSG's first-half showing against his former club:
It shouldn't be possible for a starting XI featuring Neymar, Mbappe and Angel Di Maria to be this shot-shy. Things hardly improved after the break, despite Mbappe and Neymar combining for a well-worked goal.
While the struggles of a star-studded forward line may have come as a surprise, the space Dortmund enjoyed up front couldn't have been a shock. After all, Tuchel had strangely reverted to a defensive shape that's rarely worked for Les Parisiens:
Tuchel appears increasingly unsure of how to get the best out of the marquee names at his disposal. With dominance in France annually assured, he'll know performances in Europe will ultimately determine how his tenure is judged.
So far the judgement is shaping up to be a particularly brutal indictment of Tuchel's ability.