MADRID (AP) — Liverpool and Atlético Madrid appear to be heading in opposite directions entering their last 16 meeting in the Champions League on Tuesday.
While defending European champion Liverpool has everything going its way, Atlético’s season will be on the line when the teams meet in Madrid in the first leg.
Liverpool has already won the UEFA Super Cup and the Club World Cup this season, and it’s increasingly just a formality before it wins its first English league title in 30 years. Atlético, meanwhile, lost the Spanish Super Cup and was eliminated by a third-division club in the Copa del Rey. The team is already 13 points off the lead in the Spanish league.
Atlético will have little to play for if it is eliminated by Liverpool in the Champions League.
“Certainly it will be a very difficult match, but all Champions League matches are difficult,” Atlético forward Yannick Carrasco said. “If we do what we have to do and what (coach Diego) Simeone wants us to do, we can get through. The most important thing will be to play with heart and to give everything we have. The fans will be behind us, helping us give our best.”
Liverpool will be returning to Wanda Metropolitano Stadium for the first time since it beat Tottenham to win the Champions League title in June. The second leg will be on March 11 at Anfield.
Liverpool has dropped only two points in the Premier League all season, while Atlético has won only one of its last five matches in the Spanish league. Liverpool is coming off a win at Norwich that gave the team a 25-point lead over Manchester City. Atlético drew 2-2 at Valencia on Friday to barely hold on to fourth place and the final Champions League spot for next season.
Atlético has never struggled so much since Simeone’s arrival as coach in late 2011. It made it to two Champions League finals with him in charge, but things changed after the Argentine coach was forced to revamp the squad last season following the departure of Antoine Griezmann and other veterans, such as Diego Godín and Filipe Luís. The team has struggled in attack and is not as solid defensively, which used to be the team’s biggest weapon.
Atlético is likely to be boosted against Liverpool by the return of players who were nursing injuries, including strikers Álvaro Morata and Diego Costa. Morata, the team’s leading scorer with 10 goals this season, played as a substitute against Valencia after being sidelined since Feb. 1 with a right leg muscle problem. Costa hasn’t played since undergoing surgery on a herniated cervical disc in November, but he has returned to practice and is expected to be available for Tuesday’s match.
Simeone also has defenders José Giménez and Santiago Arias returning from injuries, though young Portugal forward João Félix is not expected to recover from his leg injury. Liverpool has Fabinho and Joel Matip back after long-term problems, and Sadio Mane is also back after a recent hamstring issue.
The teams have not met since the semifinals of the 2009-10 Europa League, when Atlético advanced on away goals after a 2-2 draw on aggregate.
Atlético has only one home loss in 25 European games, and it is unbeaten in its last 13 Champions League knockout matches at home. Liverpool has won its last 11 two-legged European series.
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