Jurgen Klopp's gamble backfires as lacklustre Liverpool lose 3-0 to Atalanta – leaving his dream of a winning Europa League final farewell at serious risk, writes JOE BERNSTEIN
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Jurgen Klopp's gamble backfires as lacklustre Liverpool lose 3-0 to Atalanta – leaving his dream of a winning Europa League final farewell at serious risk, writes JOE BERNSTEIN

Apr 14, 2024

Nobody would have predicted West Ham misfit Gianluca Scamacca as being responsible for killing Jurgen Klopp’s dream farewell but that’s how it looks after a thoroughly miserable evening for Liverpool.

Thousands of Reds fans have already booked flights and hotels for the Europa League final in Dublin on May 22 in anticipation of their team being there in what would be their manager’s final game.

Those hopes are now dangling by the thinnest of threads after the gamble by Klopp to make six changes went shockingly wrong.

Scamacca, who cost West Ham £30million but stayed only a season before returning to Serie A last summer, capitalised on a dreadful error by Caoimhin Kelleher to give the Italians a half-time lead, and doubled on the hour after a panicky Klopp had already made four substitutions.

Mario Pasalic’s late third puts Atalanta, sixth in Serie A, in full control of the quarter-final tie. Though they beat Liverpool 2-0 at Anfield in the Champions League in 2020 but lost 5-0 at home, even the most optimistic Koppite will find it hard to see history repeating itself.

Atalanta earned a shock 3-0 win over Liverpool at Anfield in the first leg of their quarter-final

Atalanta earned a shock 3-0 win over Liverpool at Anfield in the first leg of their quarter-final

Liverpool face an uphill battle to rescue the Europa League last eight tie next week in Bergamo

Liverpool face an uphill battle to rescue the Europa League last eight tie next week in Bergamo

Jurgen Klopp was left to rue making six changes with the Premier League title race in mind

Jurgen Klopp was left to rue making six changes with the Premier League title race in mind

Whether a less colourful Anfield atmosphere was to blame – fans refused to bring their customary flags a protest against rising ticket prices – Liverpool will fervently hope their dramatic drop-off doesn’t spill over to the weekend when they face Crystal Palace in a match critical for their Premier League title prospects.

Perhaps Klopp already had that game in mind with his team selection for this one. Mo Salah was among the luminaries left on the bench though there were also welcome returns there for Diogo Jota and Trent Alexander-Arnold, each having missed a couple of months through injury.

Atalanta sent out an early warning after three minutes when Kelleher fortuitously blocked Pasalic at point-blank range, the shot striking the goalkeeper’s face to leave a mark.

The attacking raids of full-back David Zappacosta, once of Chelsea, were a constant threat that Liverpool never dealt with.

Not that Klopp’s men lacked opportunities at the other end. Darwin Nunez, criticised for missing chances at Old Trafford last weekend, was wayward again after 16 minutes when he latched onto a Curtis Jones pass but fired well wide.

In contrast, Harvey Elliott was desperately unlucky when his curling shot from the right angle of the penalty area struck the crossbar and then hit the post on the way down.

Overall, Klopp looked unhappy at the way his players struggled against Atalanta’s unusual approach of man-marking all over the pitch and then breaking with real purpose.

His foreboding came true after 38 minutes. Zappacosta again burst forward from right-back and was close to the Liverpool byline when he picked out Scamacca with a cutback.

Caoimhin Kelleher made a fine stop with his face early on but was at fault for the opening goal

Caoimhin Kelleher made a fine stop with his face early on but was at fault for the opening goal

Gianluca Scamacca gave Atalanta a first half lead with his effort going under Kelleher

Gianluca Scamacca gave Atalanta a first half lead with his effort going under Kelleher

The big Italian’s low strike from 12 yards to Kelleher’s left should have been saved by the goalkeeper but squirmed underneath a flailing arm and rolled over the line.

Scamacca is something of a European specialist, five of his eight goals for West Ham last season came in their winning Europa Conference campaign though he missed the final through injury.

Kelleher prevented Atalanta going 2-0 ahead on the stroke of half-time when he came out to block Dutchman Teun Koopmeiners.

Klopp had seen enough and brought on his big guns Mo Salah, Dominik Szoboszlai and Andy Robertson at the interval.

There was an early uplift with Salah denied by Juan Musso and Nunez blasting over from eight yards.

The striker was replaced by Luis Diaz on the hour but the Colombian hadn’t even touched the ball before Atalanta doubled their lead.

Scamacca doubled his tally in the second half after the forward was picked out in space

Scamacca doubled his tally in the second half after the forward was picked out in space

The former West Ham forward has proved something of a European specialist in recent years

The former West Ham forward has proved something of a European specialist in recent years

Atalanta, sixth in Serie A, continued to create chances as Liverpool pushed forward at Anfield

Atalanta, sixth in Serie A, continued to create chances as Liverpool pushed forward at Anfield

The Italians, well-marshalled by their veteran coach Gian Gasperini, played through the lines until Charles De Keletaere squared from the right and Scamacca connected with a neat sidefoot finish, first-time well beyond Kelleher’s reach.

After 75 minutes, Klopp made his last change with Jota coming on for his first appearance since a knee injury on February 17. 

He looked lively but disaster struck at the other end when Szoboszlai gave the ball away allowing Martin de Roon a clear run on goal.

His shot was parried by Kelleher straight to Pasalic who tucked away the rebound.

It was Liverpool’s first home defeat in any competition this season.

Skipper Virgil van Dijk couldn’t hide the pain. ‘A very, very disappointing evening,’ he said glumly.

‘Too many individual mistakes and we got punished for it. With the man-marking system they do, we have to do much better. It hurts of course.’

Salah thought he had pulled a goal back for Liverpool but saw his effort ruled out for offside

Salah thought he had pulled a goal back for Liverpool but saw his effort ruled out for offside

Mario Pasalic scored Atalanta's third goal as the Serie A side stunned Jurgen Klopp's side

Mario Pasalic scored Atalanta’s third goal as the Serie A side stunned Jurgen Klopp’s side

Atalanta became the first side to beat Klopp's side at Anfield since February last year

Atalanta became the first side to beat Klopp’s side at Anfield since February last year

Liverpool will now have to evoke the spirit of their famous comeback win against Barcelona to reach the semi-finals in a week’s time.

‘If you don’t believe, there’s no point going to Italy,’ added their captain before striking a realistic note. ‘We have made it very hard for ourselves.’

Hopefully for Klopp, the travelling fans will take their flags.

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