LONDON • Few teams can stop Liverpool this season, but Georginio Wijnaldum is still expecting a tough battle when the Reds return to the scene of their Champions League triumph today at Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano stadium.
Speaking ahead of the last 16, first-leg match, the Dutch midfielder said on the Liverpool website: “They are a lot like us, fighters. They are a team more or less like us, also really difficult to beat.
“You can see that in their playing style in the competition. They are always battling to get results and can easily switch when necessary.
“They know what they have to do to win. So yes, these are going to be really difficult matches.”
Liverpool are coasting towards a first Premier League title in 30 years, having dropped just two points all season, and are likely to be crowned English champions before the Champions League quarter-finals commence in early April.
They also remain on course for a potential five-trophy haul. They have already lifted the Uefa Super Cup and Club World Cup and are used to reaching European finals under manager Jurgen Klopp.
The German has overseen three in four seasons at Anfield, losing the Europa League to Sevilla in 2016 and Champions League to Real Madrid two years later before getting over the line against Tottenham last year.
“I have no clue if we can win the Champions League again but we should be ready to go for it,” said Klopp. “What I know and what we showed last year is that we can beat the best.”
When asked if the team feel any pressure to retain their crown, Wijnaldum said: “Not really, because we are doing pretty much the same thing we were doing last season.
“We are mostly working on improving the team and becoming a team that is really difficult to beat. It is essentially the same as last year.
“What we are trying to do is to give everything we’ve got and we’ll see what happens.”
On current form, Atletico appear to be inferior to the holders.
For the first time in over eight years in charge, the future of Diego Simeone has been questioned with Los Rojiblancos fourth in La Liga and battling just to qualify for next season’s Champions League.
They are a lot like us, fighters. They are a team more or less like us, also really difficult to beat.
GEORGINIO WIJNALDUM, Liverpool midfielder, on Atletico Madrid.
There is always a rocky patch but I have always had patience, energy and confidence in what I believe. We can win or lose but I am convinced of what I want because I know my players.
DIEGO SIMEONE, Atletico coach, on his side’s lack of consistency this term.
They are a far cry from the side famed for their relentless work ethic and a knack for grinding down even the most assured teams.
Instead, they have 40 points, 13 adrift of league leaders and neighbours Real, a reflection of a deflating few months.
A chronic struggle to score has hampered them all season. Of the top 10 in the Spanish top flight, only Athletic Bilbao (23) have scored fewer than their 25.
Joao Felix has been injured too often to deliver on his €126 million (S$190 million) price tag and early promise. The Portuguese wonder kid is a doubt for today’s match.
Fellow forwards Diego Costa and Alvaro Morata are also facing a race to be fit following their injuries.
“There is always a rocky patch but I have always had patience, energy and confidence in what I believe,” said Simeone.
“We can win or lose but I am convinced of what I want because I know my players.”
Simeone’s Atletico sides that came so close to winning the competition when losing two finals to rivals Real in 2014 and 2016 were built on a miserly defence.
But even the Argentinian would be impressed by Liverpool’s run of winning their last 11 league games by a combined score of 24-1.
Atletico might, however, take heart from their record at home, where they have lost only once in 21 Champions League games.
Simeone is in need of a boost as he attempts to put Atletico back among the elite, both in Spain and in Europe. But Liverpool will be bent on reminding them how far off they are.