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Haaland Fires Dortmund Ahead of PSG; Atletico Madrid Follows Familiar Formula vs. Liverpool in UCL

Defending champion Liverpool and PSG have work to do in the second legs if they are to avoid premature exits from the Champions League.

Defending European champion Liverpool slipped to a 1-0 defeat at Atletico Madrid, while Borussia Dortmund earned a 2-1 win at home over PSG as the Champions League knockout stage got underway with a pair of first legs in the round of 16 on Tuesday. 

Saul Niguez scored the goal early for Atleti, while 19-year-old Norwegian Erling Braut Haaland scored twice in an eight-minute span in the second half to put Dortmund in front. 

Atletico has never lost a game in which Saul has scored, and that record was maintained after the midfielder jabbed Atletico ahead after four minutes. Liverpool was uncharacteristically sloppy for the first quarter of the game and then struggled to break down an organized and clever Atletico side at the site of last season's Champions League final triumph.

PSG, meanwhile, may regard a 2-1 defeat as something of a positive result given how thoroughly it was outplayed. It does, at least, have the consolation prize of an away goal, turned in by Neymar between the two strikes from Haaland.

Here are three thoughts on the day in the Champions League:

Don't doubt Haaland

Never, ever doubt the power of Erling Braut Haaland. Just as it seemed like a hugely impressive performance from Dortmund might not be capped by the goal it deserved, the teenage star pounced on a half-chance to slam a finish into the roof of the net. And then after PSG had equalized and it seemed this would be a dreadful wasted opportunity for Dortmund, Haaland fired in a second in incredible fashion. And so Dortmund has a win to take to Paris in three weeks, and PSG faces yet another premature Champions League exit after three straight round-of-16 exits and the four quarterfinal ousters that preceded them.

The feeling from the group stage had been that Thomas Tuchel had begun to find a way of balancing the glamour and flair of his side with defensive stability. But that was before Neymar returned to the side and before Tuchel’s recent spat with Kylian Mbappe. Neither of the superstar forwards made much impression on the game, other than the tap Neymar landed on the jaw of Axel Witsel. He escaped a red card presumably because the lack of force in the blow, but another referee might easily have sent him off.

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With Witsel dominant and PSG looking labored, all that was missing for Dortmund was a goal, but it arrived with 21 minutes remaining. Raphael Guerreiro’s shot ricocheted into Haaland’s path, and he reacted sharply to get to the ball first and side-foot it into the roof of the net. Provoked into a response, PSG leveled as Mbappe carved through Dortmund's defense and burst into the right side of the box, where he squared for Neymar.

But Haaland hadn’t finished. His first goal exemplified his predatory instincts, but his second was all about power, as he burst into space and thumped in a shot from 20 yards for his 10th Champions League goal (eight came in the group stage with Salzburg prior to his January transfer) of the season–which is to say, one more than Barcelona.

Erling Haaland and Saul Niguez fire their teams into UCL leads

Dogged Atletico Frustrates Liverpool

Having kept clean sheets in 10 of its last 11 Premier League games, it was something of a shock to see how open Liverpool was early on. Perhaps this was the issue familiar to Bayern, Juventus and PSG of a side utterly dominant domestically finding itself struggling to make the adjustment to a higher level. 

It wasn’t just the goal–tucked in by Saul after a corner had bounced into his path off Fabinho–that made Atletico the first team to take the lead against a first-team Liverpool since Napoli did on Nov. 27 (Aston Villa did beat what was essentially a youth team in the EFL Cup three weeks later). It was a string of opportunities or near-opportunities that a weirdly lackadaisical Liverpool conceded. A mistake from Virgil van Dijk let in Alvaro Morata, who was denied by a fine save from Alisson, and it took a superb clearance from Andy Robertson to hook away another cross from surging fullback Renan Lodi.

From a tactical point of view, the early goal played perfectly into Atletico’s game plan. Diego Simeone’s side, trying to evolve to a more progressive approach, has been less than convincing in La Liga this season, but with a lead to protect against highly rated opponents, it fell quickly back into the old routine. It sat deep, surrendered the flanks and backed itself to win aerial balls if crosses were played into the box. With Trent Alexander-Arnold’s delivery not quite up to his usual high standards, Liverpool struggled to create chances, failing to muster a single shot on target.

Injury concerns for LFC

The defeat was bad enough, but in a golden season for Liverpool, this was a difficult night as the Reds lost both Sadio Mane and Jordan Henderson to injury. After a fitful first half, Mane didn’t emerge for the second half, although the nature of his problem is unclear. Henderson, meanwhile, who has been such an inspirational captain this season, was forced off with what appeared to be a tweaked left glute with 10 minutes to go. 

He at least could walk off, and it may be his departure was precautionary, but it may be that weight of games is finally beginning to tell, too.