Arbeloa Carragher Agger Aurelio
Kuyt Gerrard Riera
Maxi Rodriguez 37’
Gerrard 90+4’ (pen)
Lucky, lucky Liverpool. I almost feel bad reveling in this draw.
It looked like Atletico would deservedly hold on, packing 10 men behind the ball after Maxi Rodriguez’s wonderful 37th-minute goal, but Gerrard got a gift of a penalty call in the third minute of injury time after colliding with Pernia during yet another last-ditch attack. The captain made absolutely no mistake with his perfect penalty, but the call was only marginally more a penalty than the one I lambasted Rob Styles for giving to Chelsea a little over a year ago.
With the way Atletico defended, Liverpool really are lucky with a point. It’s not as if Liverpool played badly, except in front of goal. Yes, it was a scrappy game for much of the first half, with Keane narrowly missing Liverpool’s best chance after he beautifully controlled Alonso’s long ball, but shot just wide of the post. But on the whole, this team is playing better football than past squads. They've just lost some of the cutting edge in the last couple of matches.
And once Atletico scored – Lopez, wide open on the right, cut the ball back for Maxi Rodriguez, who controlled around Carragher as if he wasn’t even there and slotted in the far post – they were content to sit back and soak up pressure, which they did manfully for the most part. It was an utterly stunning goal, and combined with the excellent defense over the next 55 minutes, one that deserved to win a match.
Much like against Tottenham last Saturday, Liverpool kept the pressure up for long stretches, but failed to find the final touch. In the 51st minute, the home side should have had a clear penalty when the ball hit Perea’s hand in the box, but the referee appeared unsighted and played on. In addition, Liverpool lobbied for a penalty in the 2nd minute after Agger claimed a foul in the box on the first corner, but that one would have been harsh.
Liverpool created chances, but not enough. Agger had three decent opportunities in the second half – explained by the vast number of Liverpool corners (13 by my count, most of which came to nothing) – but headed wide, over, and stretched for a shot that was too close to Franco. A pretty move by Keane and Gerrard to unlock the backline in the 70th ended with the captain shooting over. And Ngog, coming on for Keane in the 71st after the Irishman pretty much ran himself into the ground, had a couple of his own, but couldn’t find a debut goal.
It looked like Atletico, unlike Liverpool, would be able to see out the one-goal lead on the road, but the make-up call to end all make-up calls allowed Gerrard the opportunity to level in the last minute of added time. Liverpool should have had the spot kick in the 51st, but got it in the 94th. Gerrard’s been questioned about diving in the past, but I don’t that’s the case here. He was trying to get on the end of the ball, came together with Pernia (who was trying to do the same), and hit the turf. It's not like he fell as if he was shot (coughRonaldocough). But seeing three Madrid players booked, two for petulance after the penalty, shows how the decision was welcomed on their end.
So now, with four games gone in the group, Liverpool and Atletico both sit on eight points, with Marseille and PSV on three. Qualification’s not assured, but it looks like these two teams are likely to advance.
I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth, but Liverpool have to realize how lucky they were. Once again, it looked like without Torres, Liverpool could not unlock a tricky defense. The effort’s there, even if some of the passing was sloppier than usual today, and there has been some sumptuous build-up in the last two matches. But Liverpool will be punished for being goal-shy. Benitez cannot allow the late penalty to paper over the cracks. They’re very fortunate they weren’t punished today.
update: One thing I forgot to elaborate on. The reason Liverpool's played some sumptuous football at times is Liverpool's #14. Yet another game he's man of the match. I eat every single question I asked of him over the summer. He's responded brilliantly, and has easily been Liverpool's best player over the first three months.