Jurgen Klopp wants to say the right things when it comes to Atletico Madrid and Diego Simeone but there is always an itch he ends up scratching.
Liverpool play Atletico again in the Champions League on Wednesday in a game that this time carries more significance for the Spaniards than the Reds.
Klopp’s team are already five points clear at the top of a group that looked awkward when the draw came out in August.
Atletico are in a scrap, level on four points with Porto, whom they still have to play in Lisbon in the final round.
In theory, the pressure on Liverpool should be reduced and yet this fixture keeps finding a way to irritate the German, to push his buttons and draw reactions he later has to rephrase or retract.
This will be the fourth meeting between the sides in the past 18 months. Atletico claimed victory in a thrilling knockout tie last year after winning 1-0 at home, and 3-2 after extra time away.
Liverpool then won by the same scoreline in Madrid last month, capitalising on a red card for Antoine Griezmann and a penalty, scored by the blistering Mohamed Salah.
For the past decade, Klopp has been one of the game’s most charming characters and charismatic voices.
He is not a coach who seeks confrontation, either deliberately or desperately, as a technique to get the best out of players. His jabs at Atletico feel out of sync and out of character.
There have been several, but the most notable came after the loss at Anfield last year. “I don’t understand with the quality they have, to be honest, that they play this kind of football. I don’t understand that,” Klopp told BT Sport.
“When I see players like Koke, Saul [Niguez], [Marcos] Llorente – they could play proper football but they stand deep and have counter- attacks. But they beat us, that’s how it is.”
In the first leg, Klopp substituted Sadio Mane, worried about Atletico’s attempts to get him sent off. “I was afraid his opponent would go down if he took a deep breath,” he said.
He noted Atletico’s celebrations at the end.
“I saw a lot of happy faces among their players and staff, but it’s not over,” said Klopp. He also seemed irked by Simeone’s antics on the touchline.
“Wow, that’s energy,” he said.
“I hope I can be a little more focused in the second leg.”
After winning in Madrid, a grinning Klopp sarcastically waved down the tunnel at Simeone, who habitually avoids shaking the other coach’s hand.
“I wanted to shake his hand and he was running off,” he said. “I’m also not overly happy with my reaction, to be honest.”
Klopp has also stayed true to his more professional instincts, offering generous praise of Atletico and Simeone, if not for their style, then their achievements.
“His teams are always well organised, world class, so that makes him one of the best coaches,” he said before the first meeting in 2020. Afterwards he said: “Their defence was exceptional.”
And he has tried to smooth over previous comments when they have resurfaced. “I’m not the pope of football,” he said after the last match. “What does it matter what I like?”
To fulfil their obligations with TV companies, coaches are required to speak within minutes of the final whistle. In some ways, it is incredible more do not err from diplomacy.
There is something about Atletico, though, that wrangles with Klopp, their beliefs about how the game should be played, and won, so different to his that the usual rules seem to get forgotten.
It is perhaps surprising even that against Liverpool, other opponents have not tried an Atletico-like approach.
There is also an irony in finding frustration with Atletico’s negative tactics now, at a time when they are more open than ever under Simeone.
Trying to squeeze Antoine Griezmann, Joao Felix and Luis Suarez into the same team has come at a cost. “We are worried about it and we’re working on it,” Simeone said last month.
Klopp’s impatience is perhaps a compliment to Atletico, to the depths Liverpool had to go to beat them and the battle they know they will face this week.
It is an indication, too, of the fervour with which Klopp holds his own beliefs and the relentlessness that brings his players along with him.
But perhaps most of all, it is good drama, a healthy, ongoing disagreement between two of the game’s greatest coaches about how best to win.
“It’s not too bad,” said Klopp. “When we see each other we’ll shake hands.”
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