AS he held court in the buffet car of the train that was carrying his team to Bordeaux on Wednesday morning, Rafa Benitez was asked what Liverpool had to do to reach the Europa League final.
“We need to score away from home,” he replied without hesitation. “Atletico are a very good side on the counterattack, as we experienced when we played them last year in the Champions League.”
Time, then, for that team to prove the manager wrong. After failing to grab an all-important away goal in Madrid last night, Liverpool will have to do things the hard way if they are going to secure themselves a trip to Hamburg on May 12.
Mind you, could it be any other way? In a campaign of great fluctuations, it would not be Liverpool if they did not have a mountain to climb in order to salvage some silverware; the stage is set for another night of drama at Anfield next week.
Atletico Madrid might be a famous name but they are not one of Spain’s leading lights but, even with that in mind, they could easily have ensured the Reds trek from hell ended with an outcome to match; a more ruthless ensemble would have flattened them here.
With all the hoopla surrounding the journey Liverpool made to Madrid, it was perhaps easy to forget there was a game to be played, a game that was the biggest of this rollercoaster campaign.
Say what you will about this competition but there are plenty of other teams who would have happily embarked on a two-day road, rail and air trip to play in the semi-final of the Europa League.
You only had to witness the passion of the home supporters in the streets surrounding the Calderon, coupled with the noise and colour they generated before kick-off, to appreciate how much it meant to ‘Atleti’.
Fanatical and intense, Atletico’s followers are up with the best in Spain but Benitez had stressed in the build up that they become fickle and frustrated very easily if things do not go their team’s way and he had implored a safe, assured start in his home city.
Infuriatingly, the opposite occurred. Sotirios Kyrgiakos switched off when a ball was delivered from the left, enabling Diego Forlan to buy himself a yard and duly bundled in from close range to give Atletico the lead.
Cue the pyrotechnics; while the fans behind Pepe Reina’s goal let off flares, Jamie Carragher, who had desperately tried to get back and clear the danger, gave Kyrgiakos a verbal rocket.
The fear at that point was that Liverpool would collapse.
Thankfully, the ship was steadied to avoid a repeat and, had it not been for some poor officiating – how many times does that phrase get used a season? – Liverpool would have restored parity.
Yossi Benayoun seized upon a mis-hit shot from Dirk Kuyt, he calmly lifted an effort over Atletico keeper David de Gea but an assistant referee hoisted his flag to chalk off the goal; television replays would confirm it to be the wrong decision.
Compared to the way they started in Lisbon last month, this performance was several rungs below that offering and it was a source of irritation, as Benfica – by some distance – are a better side than Atletico.
While Benfica are running away with Portugal’s championship, Atletico are tenth in La Liga and their record in European competition this season is a source of great curiosity; how could a team that had won only one of their previous 12 games reach this stage?
Yet there was no point in making excuses. Long journey or not, Liverpool were not passing with creativity and panache to cause problems.
One shot into the side netting apart, Gerrard wasn’t involved but, in fairness to the captain, the service he received was poor and most of his attempts to galvanise his team kept running into dead ends. David Ngog, meanwhile, lacked the presence to trouble Atletico central defenders Luis Perea and Alvaro Dominguez.
But Perea and Dominguez, remember, are not a recreation of AC Milan’s formidable partnership Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta; that Atletico have shipped 52 goals in 33 La Liga games showed they were to be got at.
To pinpoint Ngog as being the root of all Liverpool’s problems, however, would be unjust; the back four looked out of sorts, most notably Glen Johnson, who was continually caught out of possession. One such a aberration on 58 minutes almost led to Atletico seizing their second goal but Reina came to his rescue with a terrific save from Simao after he had let the Portuguese winger latch on to a Tomas Ujfalusi centre.
Having kept the Calderon relatively subdued, suddenly Liverpool found themselves on the back foot again and Ujfalusi was again heavily involved in a moment that caused great panic, Reina needing Carragher to clear the lines after he saved the Czech’s shot.
Atletico continued to push and continued to target Johnson and the more minutes ticked by, the greater the anxiety became – the tie and, for that matter, the season hung in the balance.
Happily they survived. Now the onus is on Liverpool’s players to prove their manager’s pre-match prediction proves wide of the mark.
ATLETICO MADRID (4-4-1-1): de Gea: Ujfalusi, Perea, Dominguez, Lopez: Simao (Valera 77), Raul Garcia, Assuncao, Reyes (Camacho 90 +1): Jurado: Forlan (Salvio 84). SUBS: Asenjo (GK), Salvio, Juanito, Cabrera, Borja. Goals – Forlan (9) Bookings – Valera (84)
LIVERPOOL (4-2-3-1): Reina: Johnson, Carragher, Kyrgiakos, Agger: Lucas, Mascherano: Kuyt, Gerrard, Benayoun (El Zhar 83): Ngog (Babel 64). SUBS: Cavalieri (GK), Aquilani, Degen, Ayala, Pacheco. Bookings – Kyrgiakos (83)
Attendance – 50,000 Referee – Laurent Duhamel (France)
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