Atletico win 2-2 on aggregate via away goals.
Mascherano Carragher Agger Johnson
Benayoun Aquilani Babel
Typical of this season that Liverpool were knocked out with a stomach punch delivered by a former Manc less than five minutes after Anfield was sent into sheer ecstasy. Have I mentioned that I hate this season with every fiber of my being?
Liverpool couldn’t have burst from the blocks quicker, but were forced to wait for the deserved goal from Aquilani until a minute before halftime. And injuries and the lack of squad depth were always going to catch up to the team. Roles had reserved by the hour mark, with a tired Liverpool retreating and Atletico upping the pressure. Benitez didn’t make his first substitution until the 90th minute – El Zhar for Aqua; the bench was El Zhar, Pacheco, Degen, Kyrgiakos, Ayala, (an injured) Ngog, and Cavalieri – although both teams were always going to wait on subs as long as extra time looked imminent.
And when Benayoun scored five minutes into that imminent extra time, latching onto to Lucas’s clever ball over the top, Anfield went into hysterics and it looked like Liverpool would get the deserved, hard-fought win to set up an all-English final. But Atletico responded with two dangerous chances before Johnson misjudged a long ball from defense, which bounced fortuitously for Reyes to cross to that former Manc. I don’t even want to write his name.
Throwing on Degen for Mascherano, trying to get more attack from right back, and Pacheco for Benayoun (which was about to happen right before Yossi’s goal), Liverpool tried to push forward to find the winner, as happened so many times last season. But exhausted legs and a lack of attacking guile led to few chances despite unrelenting effort. I’m struggling to remember any shots, let alone shots on goal, after Atletico’s strike.
It’s no exaggeration when I write Liverpool stormed down the field from the whistle. Benayoun forced a near post save after only 11 seconds, leading to three corners within two minutes. The players named in the starting XI aptly demonstrate Liverpool’s intent. But a resilient Atletico limited chances, again led by Perea, while unsurprisingly testing on the counter.
While Agger had the ball in the net in the 32rd from a Gerrard free kick, he was rightfully ruled offside. Kuyt, toeing Masch's cross over the bar after some brilliant interplay between Gerrard, Aquilani, and the Dutchman, and Gerrard, whose apparent shot on target unluckily hit Benayoun, created Liverpool’s best chances of the half before Aquilani wonderfully found the back of the net a minute before the interval. Benayoun broke to the byline down the right, and while Kuyt missed his pullback, Aquilani didn’t, arrowing into the bottom corner despite losing his footing.
Some might be tempted to criticize Liverpool for being pushed back in the second half with the tie level on aggregate. Aquilani, who shone in the “Gerrard role” in the first half, was the most obvious, increasingly hovering around the center circle. But with a limited squad, tired/half-fit players, and extra time the likeliest outcome, I’m not surprised with the second half’s progression, and Liverpool ably kept Atletico at bay while getting a couple of opportunities on the counter.
When Benayoun struck in extra time, I really was certain Liverpool would hold on. It’s unfortunate that Johnson – in an unfamiliar left-back role so Agger could mark Aguero with Liverpool already short-handed – paid for his mistake, but Atletico didn’t crumble after conceding. Like Liverpool in 2005, their league and European form seem polar opposites. Reina had to smartly push away Reyes’ skidding shot and Jurado blasted narrowly wide from the top of the box right before Forlan (sigh) struck. Sadly, it kind of looked on the cards.
It certainly seems an unfair way to end this campaign. A European final would have been an incredible, needed release from this season’s torments. But it was a determined Atletico, arguably lucky to take a one-goal lead into this leg and going through their own domestic anguish, which won the tie. I truly don’t think Liverpool “lost” it.
At least we discovered Liverpool’s strongest line-up today (and that Mascherano’s awesome at right back, potentially world-class at that position if he improved his crossing). Finding out that Aquilani’s best position is in the “Gerrard role” is one of those surprises it takes a season to discover, especially when the player missed the first half of the campaign through injury. The last two games have left little argument that Liverpool’s best midfield is Gerrard/Mascherano with Aquilani in the hole, Kuyt and Maxi fighting it out on the right with Babel and Benayoun in the same competition on the left, and Torres obviously up front. Pity there are just two games left in the season.
As heart-wrenchingly disappointing as today’s result is, especially losing it in injury time with the tie apparently won (it’s an absolute travesty that away goals count in extra-time, by the way), this can’t be the straw that breaks any camel’s back. On the whole, Liverpool played well, especially considering circumstances. We saw the required attacking verve and willingness, and Rafa taking gambles.
Winning the Europa League wouldn’t have made amends for the league (or Champions League) campaign, and narrowly going out in the semi-finals shouldn’t diminish any renewed optimism based on some decent league results, a good run past strong Benfica and Lille teams, and Aquilani’s emergence. There’s still a plan in place for next season, and there’s still a decent team in this group of players. I wish I could fast forward through what I'm sure will be a fun, rumor-filled off-season. At least there'll be the distraction of the World Cup.