What Liverpool do against Atalanta could have huge impact on Premier League title race

BERGAMO, ITALY 17: (THE SUN OUT, THE SUN ON SUNDAY OUT) Jurgen Klopp manager of Liverpool during the UEFA Europa League 2023/24 quarter-final second leg training and press conference at Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia on April 17, 2024 in Bergamo, Italy. (Photo by Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)
Jurgen Klopp, manager of Liverpool, during last night's press conference at Atalanta's home -Credit:Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

If Liverpool’s season has largely been one of constantly defying expectations, then that ability faces the ultimate test this evening.

The capacity to surprise that worked against the Reds in front of a stunned Anfield last week means they must produce one of their greatest European escape acts here in Bergamo to keep alive hopes of Jurgen Klopp completing the set of major honours as manager.

Nothing will perhaps ever quite match the comeback that saw a three-goal deficit overturned in the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona almost five years ago.

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Recovering a similar margin against Atalanta in the Europa League quarter-final, however, would run it close, not least with Liverpool having never before progressed in the four previous times they have lost a first leg at home, the most recent of which was, of course, against Real Madrid in the Champions League last season.

There is, though, more at stake than maintaining hopes of a final date in Dublin next month. With the clock ticking down on the final days of Klopp’s reign, the hopes of the departing boss claiming a second Premier League title were severely damaged by Sunday’s loss to Crystal Palace.

Having gone more than 12 months without defeat at Anfield, to lose twice there in the space of three days – including only a second top-flight reverse at home in front of supporters in seven years – has prompted fears Liverpool’s unexpectedly impressive campaign is running out of steam at precisely the wrong time.

The run-in, so often a strength under Klopp regardless of what has gone before during the season, is becoming a weakness. There are, of course, myriad reasons for that, most notably the injuries at key times to influential players that were always going to catch up with Liverpool at some point, even it few could have envisaged matters unravelling as quickly as the manner they have over the past week.

And it won’t be lost on Klopp that it has come at the moment the cavalry have just started to return. After two months on the sidelines, Alisson Becker and Trent-Alexander Arnold were back in action on Sunday when Curtis Jones made his first Premier League start since mid-February.Diogo Jota has emerged from the bench in the last two games after a similar absence.

All four will be strongly fancied to start this evening, given Liverpool’s need for experience and goal threat allied to the desire to put further minutes in the tank for the returning players ahead of a busy week on the road in the Premier League, with weekend London visits to take on Fulham and then West Ham United sandwiching next Wednesday’s Goodison Park derby against Everton.

While Klopp admitted Atalanta, under wily boss Gian Piero Gasperini, did a number on his team last Thursday by marking man-to-man in midfield, had Liverpool tucked away one of several presentable opportunities then the task at what, even with part of the stadium not complete as renovation continues, is likely to be a bouncing Gewiss Stadium would be significantly less onerous, with the Serie A side aiming for their first European semi-final since 1988.

Key could well be quelling the threat of former West Ham United striker Gianluca Scamacca, who netted twice for Atalanta at Anfield. “He was exceptional against us," says Klopp. "In England we say he was a handful. Difficult to play against: good in the air and on the floor. I liked him at West Ham, it didn't work out but the Premier League is a difficult place to play.

"You can see he has great quality. I don't know who is in contention to be the number nine for Italy for but for a specific way of playing he is a fantastic option, brings the ball down and gives you time to push up, is a threat in the box, his speed as well. A really interesting package.

"He made a big difference in that game but we didn't make it too difficult for him. Did he score against us when he played for West Ham? So we played twice against him, once we defended well."

Having won 27 points from losing positions in the Premier League this season, the Reds aren’t unaccustomed to playing catch-up, although admittedly not quite to the extent now required.

And, of course, Liverpool won 5-0 when last visiting here in a Champions League group game in the 2020/21 season, albeit behind closed doors. That, though, is the only time in their history they have scored more than twice in a game in Italy.

This time, the anticipation among locals is tangible over the visit of Klopp’s side, even if one hotel receptionist mixed up their bitter North West rivals and mentioned looking forward to the big game against Manchester United.

Liverpool will hope, in a positive sense, that their performance tonight is one that means there can be no concern of mistaken identity. And even if an unlikely fightback abroad ultimately proves beyond them, this has to be an occasion to help the Reds drag their domestic campaign back on track.