UEFA Europa League Semi Final 2nd Leg
|Atlético Madrid 1||
- The Guardian, Friday 30 April 2010
Diego Forlán inflicted greater hurt on Liverpool than he ever did in a Manchester United jersey. Rafel Benítez's side were 2-1 ahead on aggregate but, 12 minutes into extra-time, the Atlético Madrid striker turned home a wonderful left-footed cross from José Antonio Reyes to win the Europa League tie on the away goals rule. It is the La Liga side that will contest the final with Fulham on 12 May in Hamburg.
That is as it should be. For all the angst the losers will experience, they have been eliminated by opponents who had superior technique throughout the ranks. Atlético had also illustrated that when winning the first leg with a Forlán goal. If there is benefit for Liverpool it will lie in having any remaining illusions removed. Accomplished as Yossi Benayoun was, the line-up is of uneven quality.
This taxing occasion that stretched them over two hours will have been pleasing to behold for Chelsea, who are here on Sunday for a critical match in their quest for the Premier League title. As if bodies were not aching enough, there is hurt for Liverpool to overcome in this drab end to their ambitions for silverware in this campaign.
The passion on the night did come close to disguising the limitations. A second goal had arrived in the fifth minute of extra-time when Benayoun collected a fine pass from Lucas Leiva to finish confidently. That moment was an illusion in its suggestion that Liverpool had risen above the difficulties and their own limitations. Atlético, too, showed limitations while taking so long to execute the decisive goal.
All the same, the tie was pulled level on aggregate a minute before half-time. The absurd ease of the build-up indicated that Atlético had temporarily become harassed. It took no more than a Javier Mascherano throw-in to send Benayoun turning past the defence on the right for a cutback converted delightfully by Alberto Aquilani.
It was to be expected that patience would be essential. These, after all, are interlocking clubs who even chose to engage in a friendly on this ground in August. It is hard to separate these clubs. The matches in last season's Champions League group phase both ended in 1-1 draws and now they share a mood of anti-climax over their featureless domestic campaigns.
There are certain differences, all the same. Atlético's disappointment had been even more marked since they stand 10th in La Liga, although they have now transcended that mediocrity. In the first leg at the Vicente Calderón, Quique Sánchez Flores's side struggled for conviction even after Forlán had struck.
A 1-0 defeat, all the same, is still a poor result in an away leg. Atlético could also feel encouraged that the Argentinian forward Sergio Agüero had completed his suspension in Madrid. Benítez had to be fearful of the striker. The presence of Agüero was enough to make him demote the solid Sotirios Kyrgiakos to the bench and put Daniel Agger at centre-back in the hope that the Dane's greater mobility would be telling.
The defence had to be rejigged in other ways, too. Mascherano filled the right-back post as Glen Johnson was relocated to the left. With a deficit to be addressed, defending could be only a secondary issue and as the first-half developed Atlético were pinned down. Agüero must have been exasperated then. When he did slip into space with the aid of a good Raúl García pass, his final ball drifted away harmlessly.
Benítez's line-up was not ideal but an important ingredient was present. Since Fernando Torres has been lost to knee trouble for the remainder of the season it was key that Dirk Kuyt had overcome a calf strain to fill the role of centre-forward.
If the tie was in the balance at half-time, the visitors re-emerged to try to tip it back in their favour. Liverpool, with the crowd behind them, seemed, for their part, to have a confidence that matters would flow in their favour. The faith was not to be justified.
The tie was so poised that restraint came naturally. There had been a thoughtfulness to the occasion, despite yellow cards, and a trace of patience was present. Steven Gerrard, for instance, was in a deeper-lying role, with Benítez putting the emphasis on his captain's experience as much as his individualism.
Even so, the calibre of Atlético's technique was never in dispute. The visiting supporters saw enough encouragement for their voices, briefly, to rise above those of the Anfield regulars and their side certainly had the last word.