Atletico Madrid midfielder Saul Niguez is a Liverpool fan.
Not in the way Fernando Torres was, with his ‘You’ll never Walk Alone’ captain’s armband, more as a big-hearted midfield soldier who appreciates a team driven on by players cut from the same cloth.
‘I was watching the game against Norwich on Saturday,’ he says at Atletico’s training ground on the eve of tonight’s Champions League last-16 first leg. ‘If not for the goal from [Sadio] Mane, who produces an extraordinary piece of control, then they don’t win. But for a long time now they have been winning games they could have drawn or even lost.
Saul Niguez has been a big admirer of the way Liverpool have played over the past few years
‘They always find a way, sometimes in the last minutes, and that tells you something about what they have inside, their character. It’s not luck, it’s work.’
Some Atletico Madrid supporters might say it’s the way their team used to play when they were winning La Liga in 2014 and reaching two Champions League finals.
Are Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool what Diego Simeone’s Atletico once were?
‘It’s a different system and different players,’ says Saul. ‘They play more with a counter-attacking style with the three very good players up front and then those “perros de presa” the “hunting dogs” in midfield.’
And this is where the professional admiration really kicks-in – top dog for Saul is Jordan Henderson.
‘They all run and press and they manage it so well because it’s not just running for the sake of running. It’s very well organised. If [Mohamed] Salah goes wide, then Henderson comes inside, if someone else goes inside, someone else goes outside.
The Atletico Madrid star spoke to Sportsmail’s Pete Jenson ahead of Tuesday’s shwodown
‘And maybe some people don’t rate Henderson as highly as [Georginio] Wijnaldum, (Naby) Keita or Fabinho but I think he is the one that brings that team together.
‘Henderson does that so-called dirty work that Gabi [Fernandez] used to do for us, that I have to do, that Koke does. He is an example in so many facets of the game.’
When Saul emerged as a 19-year-old prospect in 2013 regularly attracting watching Manchester United scouts, it was his attacking qualities that stood out.
They are still showcased in Spain’s midfield but when he plays for his club these days his job is more one of self-sacrifice.
He recognises how hard Liverpool work on the pitch. And how hard they train a way of playing that can seem disordered but is anything but.
‘It’s very hard to escape that pressure when they come at you the way they do,’ he says. ‘One man comes out and his team-mate doesn’t say “where are you going?” He goes with him.
‘They all go. And then if they get turned, then at least seven of them, the four at the back and the three in the middle, all charge back.
‘It’s incredible, they go out madly pressing like animals because they know that even if they lose it they’re still going to have at least seven running like mad to win it back.’
He’s describing Klopp’s Liverpool but this also sounds like the Atletico team that reached those two Champions League finals.
In 2016 in Milan he played 120 minutes and then scored his spot-kick in the shoot-out. He ended up consoling team-mate Juanfran as he missed and Real Madrid won.
‘It’s the worst thing that can happen to you in your football life,’ he says after a thoughtful silence. ‘After so much work, so much expectation and passion, to see all your people who have gone to another country to see you, fill half the stadium, and then you don’t win. It’s the feeling that you have let them down.’
He’s a football romantic. Just listening to him talk about that night and about Atletico’s old Vicente Calderon stadium shows as much.
Three sides of the famous old ground have been knocked down and he believes the old main stand, yet to be demolished, should be left untouched.
‘I think they should leave it there just as it is. People will come and see it.
‘I take friends there and they want photos. I tell them: “here is where I scored, right here”. It’s uniquely historic.
‘I always say that my best memory is a defeat at the Calderon against Real Madrid (in the 2017 Champions League semi-final). We won 2-1 on the night but we were knocked out.
‘The whole stadium stayed at the end, no one left. The rain was coming down and all the Real Madrid fans were putting on rain coats and ours were taking their clothes off and singing. And you think: how can I not give everything when I play for these people.’
That was the night Simeone said he would need to clone some of his ageing stars. The likes of Gabi, Diego Godin, Felipe Luis and Juanfran have all gone and Saul admits instilling the Atletico way into the new players will take time.
He’s been impressed with Kieran Trippier who should be fit for the second leg. ‘We all thought that maybe an English footballer would not be so open minded,’ he says. ‘But he wanted to learn Spanish and he is committed to the cause. His character has helped us a lot.’ Others have found it tougher.
‘We have brought players in with lots of quality but they have to adapt. It happened with Antoine [Griezmann]. For six months he didn’t do it. He scored a hat-trick in Bilbao and then it started; not because he scored a hat-trick, but because he understood the work that the team needed from him.
‘When your best player, which he was at the time, is defending, it makes every other player follow.
‘It’s the same with the pressing. If someone goes and presses then you follow. If one goes and you think: no, I’m not sure, then the whole thing falls apart. The mentality has to be: if he goes then so do I.’
This all seems to bring us back to Liverpool and how you beat a team that has played 35 games this season with 34 wins.
‘You have to break that [record]’ he says defiantly. ‘We know what their strong points are but we know what their weaknesses are too. And we have to make the most of the game at home.’
His nostalgia for the old stadium does not stop him believing the new Metropolitano can be special too. ‘The stadium is good, the people are good,’ he says. ‘It’s just about having some epic games here. That will build the magic.’
A big first-leg result will then set up the Anfield second leg. ‘I am looking forward to it. Fernando [Torres] always says it’s amazing. I’ve never been. It will be special.’
Klopp against Simeone will be special too. ‘He seems to have a great way of treating his players even the ones not playing, it’s all to their face,’ Saul says, before jokingly adding: ‘From the outside that’s how it looks. Maybe on the inside they want to kill him when they are not playing!’
Despite a marathon contract until 2026 his playing style still looks perfect for a Premier League adventure one day. Would he not fit perfectly as one of Klopp’s hunting dogs?
‘For Cholo [Simeone] I can do that too,’ he says. ‘I am very grateful to this club: they have treated me like a member of the family since I was very young.
‘I think he [Simeone] is the only one who truly values my work; that’s why I play almost every minute. He doesn’t just gift players minutes.
‘He’ll say: “Saul, they’re hurting us on this side, go there. Try to solve the problem, do what you can”. He knows I suffer because I am playing in positions that are not ideal for me, but he values what I do.
‘I can’t say no to him: he’s the man who gave me my debut, who helped me grow as a player and a person. I do it for the team.’
He will need to produce another selfless display tonight. The last time Liverpool took on a team from La Liga it was Barcelona and they destroyed them.
He says he hasn’t studied that game because Barcelona ‘play a different way’. And with understated forewarning he adds: ‘And Liverpool have got even better since then.’