Liverpool’s catalogue of errors could leave Jurgen Klopp without European farewell

Liverpool slumped to their first defeat at Anfield since Real Madrid last year (Reuters)
Liverpool slumped to their first defeat at Anfield since Real Madrid last year (Reuters)

The invasion of Ireland may have to be called off. Dublin may not stage Jurgen Klopp’s farewell party after all. A Champions League winner’s reign may not end in Europa League glory amid thousands of Liverpool fans. The risk instead is that Atalanta, unfancied but impressive, bring his European odyssey to a premature end in Bergamo next week. A damaging week may take on disastrous proportions if it costs Liverpool both the Premier and the Europa Leagues.

They now need a repeat of Klopp’s most famous comeback, from 3-0 down against Barcelona, but without the advantage of Anfield. They have won 5-0 at Atalanta in the Champions League in his tenure but their worst performance on Merseyside this season brought a first home defeat in over a year. Real Madrid were the last visitors to win here until, courtesy of Gianluca Scamacca’s double and Mario Pasalic’s tap-in, Atalanta sprang a surprise. Klopp has only lost five European games at Anfield but two have been to the Italian overachievers.

And for a manager who has permed expertly from his squad this season, there may be the depressing realisation his rotation was mistaken, that his gamble backfired. The sight of Mohamed Salah, Dominik Szoboszlai and Andy Robertson coming on at half-time was an attempt to repair the damage after each was rested. Luis Diaz, another substitute, followed, but barely a minute later Scamacca scored Atalanta’s second. Klopp has been able to field some eclectic sides in Europe this season, but against Atalanta, by far and away the best side they have faced in continental competition since Real, a weakened team produced a weak display.

Kelleher was partly at fault for two of the Atalanta goals (AP)
Kelleher was partly at fault for two of the Atalanta goals (AP)

It was a chastening night for Caoimhin Kelleher, at fault for two of the goals, but the issues extended far beyond him. Liverpool made a slow start but while they have spent the season retrieving deficits, falling behind and mounting fightbacks, it is not a failsafe formula. On this occasion, it just got worse. And profligacy, such a problem at Old Trafford on Sunday, undermined Liverpool again. Not for the first time, Darwin Nunez was a particular culprit, with a couple of hideous finishes. Some 19 efforts yielded no goal: only Salah found the net and only when he was offside.

Anfield, often electric on such occasions, was flat on what could now prove Klopp’s last European night on Merseyside. There were no flags in the Kop, amid a protest at the price rise for tickets, but, suddenly, Liverpool are flagging; having lost the lead in the Premier League, the favourites could be knocked out of the Europa League.

It felt that way when Pasalic slotted in after Kelleher’s limp parry from Marten de Roon’s shot to make it 3-0. Szoboszlai had lost the ball and while Liverpool finished with a far stronger side than they started, they were unable to alter the momentum in a game when they were too disjointed, too open, too liable to being cut open by a side of Atalanta’s incision.

They have bought wisely, acquiring a host of bit-part players from the Premier League’s past. Their £22.5m investment in Scamacca was hefty by their standards, but it may bring a European semi-final. A West Ham reject proved the scourge of Anfield.

He struck first when he met Davide Zappacosta’s cross with a first-time shot. It was very saveable but Kelleher contrived to dive over it. Fine a deputy to Alisson as Kelleher has proved, Liverpool had reasons to rue the Brazilian’s absence.

Scamacca scored twice for Atalanta (Getty Images)
Scamacca scored twice for Atalanta (Getty Images)

Kelleher’s errors were nonetheless offset by fine saves. There was a brilliant, if unorthodox, stop in the third minute, deflecting Pasalic’s close-range shot wide with his face; if Kelleher knew little about it, a save was still a reward for his reflexes, flinging himself in the way of it. A terrific block from the influential Teun Koopmeiners followed on the stroke of half-time. Yet when he was culpable for the third, a hero of the Carabao Cup had endured a traumatic time in the Europa League.

And he was helpless as Atalanta sprang Liverpool’s offside trap, Charles De Ketelaere crossing for Scamacca to slot in his second. The high defensive line, like much else about Klopp’s gameplan, failed Liverpool on the night.

Prioritising the Premier League in their selection scarcely worked. Kostas Tsimikas had a wretched first half. The other two removed at the break, Harvey Elliott and Curtis Jones, had been responsible for Liverpool’s two brightest moments before the break. Jones, making his first start since February, provided a defence-splitting pass, only for Nunez to miscue his finish. Elliott curled a Salah-esque shot against first the underside of the bar and then the post, affording Atalanta a double reprieve.

It was as close as Liverpool came. After the break, Salah had a shot saved, Virgil van Dijk had two chances from corners and Nunez skied a shot. Diogo Jota made his comeback but the forward to star was Scamacca. For Liverpool, Dublin was the dream. Atalanta supplied the unwanted reality check.