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Atlético Madrid Takes Early Lead to Beat Liverpool

Atlético came in as the underdog against the reigning European champions, who couldn’t find a way to break through the Spanish team’s defense.

MADRID — Atlético Madrid scored early and then defended well to beat Liverpool, 1-0, in the first leg of the Champions League’s round of 16 on Tuesday, spoiling the reigning champion’s return to the place where it had won the European title last year.

Midfielder Saúl Ñíguez netted in the fourth minute, and Atlético’s defense successfully held off Liverpool’s powerful attack to give Coach Diego Simeone’s team the edge going into the second leg on March 11 in England.

It was at Atlético’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium that Liverpool defeated Tottenham, 2-0, last June to lift its fifth Champions League trophy. Tuesday’s lineup was nearly identical for Liverpool, with defender Joe Gomez the only player who did not start in last year’s final.

Atlético, enduring one of its worst stretches under Simeone, came in as a heavy underdog against the thriving European champions.

“It’s not the best night ever because we didn’t win a trophy,” Simeone said. “But there are nights you don’t forget. The best team in the world came here, and we beat them. But it’s only one game. We still have one to go.”

Liverpool controlled possession throughout but could not find a way to break through the tight Atlético defense.

The hosts pressed early, and it did not take long before they had opened the scoring. Ñíguez netted from close range after picking up a loose ball inside the area following a corner. The ball appeared to touch Liverpool midfielder Fabinho before reaching Ñíguez for an easy goal.

Liverpool, which had not trailed in 15 matches in all competitions, quickly worked its way into the game, but it took nearly half an hour for the visitors to have an attempt on goal.

Atlético had a good chance to add to the lead in the 26th when striker Álvaro Morata, making his 50th Champions League appearance, had his shot blocked by Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson Becker.

A goal by Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah was ruled out for offside moments later, and Salah again came close to equalizing in the 36th with a shot deflected by Atlético defender Felipe in front of the goal.

“We had the ball most of the game,” Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk said. “We couldn’t create massive opportunities, but we have another 90 minutes to set it straight and should be full of confidence.”

Salah’s 53rd-minute header was just wide, and Morata squandered another good opportunity for Atlético in the 68th.

Atlético striker Diego Costa came off the bench in the 77th for his first appearance since having an operation on a herniated cervical disk in November.

Atlético has conceded only one goal in its last 12 Champions League knockout matches at home.

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