Johnson Carragher Kyrgiakos Agger
Kuyt Lucas Mascherano Benayoun
Underwhelming in both tactics and performance, an embarrassing defensive collapse allowing a mediocre Atletico a solitary early strike, and Liverpool still should have finished level, but saw Benayoun’s 19th minute “goal” wrongly ruled out. “Hate” doesn’t even fully describe this season anymore.
To be fair, Liverpool weren’t any good going forward, and Atletico center back Luis Perea was very good. To say that chances were few and far between for both sides does the cliché little justice – they were almost nonexistent for Liverpool after Benayoun’s strike was ruled out – and Atletico had the better of them, as Reina made two huge saves in the second half.
The opener came from an attack down Liverpool’s right, with Johnson somehow caught upfield despite the home side’s patient build-up. A neat one-two between Jurado and Forlan required Carragher to move out to close down the winger’s space, and Forlan found the gap between Kyrgiakos and Agger. He somehow blundered an open header, but with Reina stranded and Kyrgiakos on the floor, was first to scramble in the rebound. The only thing missing was Benny Hill music playing the background. And, of course, it was the former Manc.
Liverpool almost replied immediately, with Ujfalusi doing well to ensure Benayoun couldn’t make clean contact with Johnson’s cross. And ten minutes later, the apparently mandatory refereeing controversy took place. Let’s just say it’s not been a good season with officials.
It was admittedly a narrow decision. Liverpool’s suffered some absolute shockers from referees this season; I wish I were surprised a narrow decision went against the club. But the Israeli was perfectly timed to get on the end of Kuyt’s mishit shot and it should have been 1-1. To make matters worse, Lucas found Gerrard over the top less than a minute later only for the captain to shoot into the side netting from a tight angle.
But for the most part, Liverpool’s performance was just as aggravating as the linesman’s decision. Most noticeably, starting Ngog didn’t pay off. I feel bad for the young Frenchman, but he’s not equipped to hold up play as he was asked away from Anfield, and it didn’t help that Perea had such an excellent match. He was frequently isolated and often unable to retain the ball on long punts forward, which prevented Liverpool from catching up and maintaining any sort of possession in Atletico’s half. Reina was by far the busier keeper on either side of intermission, even after Liverpool’s substitutions, while I don’t think De Gea had to make a save.
Liverpool did look better right after the restart, with two potential moves blunted by Perea, but Atletico could have extended their lead in the 54th and 58th. First, an onside Forlan attempted a strange stab at goal from 15 yards with more time than he realized, then Reina was called into action to save Simao’s near post volley after Johnson slipped while tracking the cross.
While Benitez tried to change things, bringing Babel on for Ngog in the 64th, which saw Kuyt move up top, it did little to alter the attack as Atletico ate up balls over the top and an increasingly deep backline refused to buckle. Meanwhile, the home side continued presenting the odd threat, most frightingly in the 76th, when Reina could only parry Ujfalusi’s strong shot but Carragher got the vital clearance before Simao could tap in the rebound.
The last throw of the dice, replacing Benayoun with El Zhar in a straight swap, helped lead to Liverpool’s lone threat in the final fifteen minutes, when Kuyt spreading the play out to Gerrard on the right, only to see the captain’s cross deflected before it could reach an on-rushing Johnson. But that was about it, and it was Atletico that threatened with two late corners as time expired, putting this match out of our misery.
Yes, Liverpool were poor in attack, often isolated and bereft of ideas other than trying to catch Atletico out with long balls. There’s a reason I’ve petulantly drawn up the usual formation as a 4-4-1-1. I wish I could come up with more potent descriptors than "isolated" or "disjointed," but the only alternatives also involve swear words. Yes, Atletico weren’t incredibly impressive, although you knew repeatedly mentioning their dire European record would haunt in the end. And yes, it’s probably no coincidence that the four teams which trekked across Europe this week, but that’s a paper-thin excuse.
But were this a fair universe, the match would have ended 1-1. And Liverpool's taken deficits into the second legs of the last two rounds only to win impressively at Anfield. It certainly won’t be easy, and a repeat of today’s form certainly won’t see progression to the finals. If not for Reina, it could have been an even greater mountain to climb. But there’s still more than a glimmer of hope.