Carragher Skrtel Hyypia Aurelio
Kuyt Gerrard Babel
With Inter players sent off in both legs, the focus will probably, and unfortunately, be on the referees. It should be on the immaculate performance over two matches against arguably the best side in Serie A.
With Liverpool staying with the 4-2-3-1 formation, many pre-match commentators (including those of us in the States subjected to Tommy Smyth) believed it to show Liverpool shaking off its conservative nature and going for the goal. Which wasn’t exactly the case.
4-2-3-1 is what’s been working for Liverpool, and one of its fun facets is it can easily be either a 4-3-3 (well, 4-2-1-3 in Liverpool’s case) or a defensive-minded 4-5-1. It’s not as if Liverpool was going to change its stripes overnight, and soon after the opening whistle it became apparent that the pre-match talk from Liverpool and Inter would hold true. Inter would press in search of the needed goals, and Liverpool would live and die by their defense and counter-attack.
And from the Liverpool point of view, the plan worked to a tee. The away side was under pressure throughout the first half, but didn’t allow Inter an opener and looked to quickly spring the break when given the chance.
Reina was key in the first half, making two terrific saves on Julio Cruz, turning his low shot from distance around the post in the 9th and keeping out a flick reminiscent of Babel against Besiktas in the 43rd. The Argentinean striker also put his shot wide when through on goal (and with Stankovic lurking wide open) in the 29th minute.
Throughout the first 45 minutes, Liverpool bent, but did not break. Pepe was the hero with those two saves, but other than a Skrtel mistake in the second half that put Ibrahimovic through (again, to shoot wide), everyone in a red shirt played their parts. Carragher also deserves special mention in defense for keeping Ibrahimovic quiet throughout, but from strikers to keeper, everyone came through.
There were sniffs of an away goal on the counter, with the best chance coming when a mistake by Cambiasso opened it up for Torres, only for Cesar to make the save from a narrow angle, but chances were limited, and Inter were keeping possession well, with Zanetti in midfield their most influential.
But less than five minutes after halftime, Burdisso picked up a second booking for colliding with (and with what looked to be a high boot on) Lucas, and Inter were again down to 10 men. I had to go back to my notes to remember Burdisso’s first (unnecessarily fouling Kuyt on the sideline 34 minutes in), but with the way the referee was calling fouls and handing out cards, both it’s little surprise he saw yellow for either. It’s one thing to say that the second yellow was harsh because Burdisso was already booked, but that shouldn’t come into consideration when handing out cards.
Don’t get me wrong, the sending off certainly didn’t hurt matters for Liverpool, but it didn’t completely change the game either. Liverpool always looked capable of snatching a goal, especially with the streak Torres is on, while Inter didn’t look like they could score two.
And then that man Torres made his mark again. Although Burdisso was sent off, Liverpool hadn’t changed their plan of attack. Inter couldn’t offer the same amount of pressure with 10 men as in the first half, but Liverpool was still content to soak it up and spring forward on the counter. And the break looked far more incisive with a man-advantage, with Torres getting the goal that would seal the match in the 64th minute, when Aurelio’s accurate early cross found him with space to turn around Chivu and fire into the net. It’s a sign of just how good Torres is that he made the goal look as easy as he did.
And from there, with Inter needing 4 goals to advance, Liverpool simply killed off the game. Maicon’s blazing shot-cum-cross went wide in the 79th minute and Ibrahimovic skied over through on goal (playing the offside trap beautifully but fouling up when it counts) seconds later, but that was about it. There was a section of play where Liverpool must have strung 20-plus passes together in their own half, with the away fans duly shouting "olé," late in the match.
There’s one way it could have been different for Inter though. No matter how well Liverpool was playing, the away side was always going to rack up the fouls with Inter in need of goals, a stern referee, and Inter’s inclination to dive like it’s going out of style. By my count, Inter had at least 8 free kicks within 35 yards of goal. And all of them were atrocious.
The one thing I worried about in the preview was Liverpool’s vulnerability from set plays, demonstrated by this backline against Bolton. And it’s not as if it was a closely guarded secret. More specifically, Liverpool’s shaky when it comes to second balls and when there’s a scramble in the box. But it seemed every single free kick was blasted over the bar by Ibrahimovic, Cruz, or Chivu, and had the situation been reserved, I’d be utterly livid at the wastefulness.
But that’s a pretty large if, and I certainly don’t mean to take anything away from the victors. Liverpool deserved to be winners and deserved the 3-0 aggregate. There’s no point trying to pick a man of the match. Reina made those saves, Torres keeps scoring (his 26th), and Mascherano was Mascherano. Skrtel continues to improve (and on his European debut, in the San Siro), Gerrard and Babel habitually threatened on the break, and Aurelio was solid at left back and provided a gorgerous assist.
If Liverpool can play like this in the quarterfinals, it doesn’t matter who’s drawn in the next round.
The draw’s on Friday. Reading on Saturday.