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Lone magpie proves omen for Europa League misery

THE nursery rhyme, then, is correct after all; if two magpies are a signal for joy, one most certainly is a pointer for sorrow.

For much of an absorbing but ultimately galling Europa League semi-final, a lone, plump magpie hopped around the Kop penalty area, brazenly ignoring the stampeding feet of Liverpool and Atletico Madrid’s players.

Those who look for omens should have known from then that Liverpool’s hopes of salvaging their season were being conspired against by the fates.

In reality, though, there is a more simple reason why a trip to Hamburg on May 12 is no longer on the agenda.

Painful though it is to admit, Liverpool will not contest an all-English Europa League final because they were not good enough in Madrid last week and did not have enough quality to call upon at the vital moments.

Mix the two ingredients together and you have a recipe for a calamity and so it proved.

Never before has a 2-1 Anfield win felt so hollow. The effort and commitment could not be faulted but the “perfect” night Steven Gerrard desired proved impossible to attain.

Despite beginning with a searing intensity and a rat-a-tat-tat period of play which in the first 90 seconds yielded a shot from the outstanding Yossi Benayoun, three corners and Javier Mascherano putting Diego Forlan into the hoardings, Liverpool ran out of puff.

Crucially, they did not get the early breakthrough that would have been the catalyst for a bombardment on the Atletico goal and they lost their way on too many occasions, allowing Atletico to show flashes of menace on the break.

Then, to everyone’s relief, the tide started to turn; Daniel Agger’s header from a Gerrard free-kick looked to have given the Reds the lead but a linesman’s flag – despite several protests – correctly chalked the goal off.

No matter. Spurred on by a perceived sense of injustice, the volume began to rise, the tempo did likewise and, on the cusp of half-time, Benayoun’s determin- ation and ingenuity created an opening for Aquilani to properly announce his arrival at the club.

There had been much to like about everything the Italian had done in the first 45 minutes, his use of the ball was intelligent, his energy and movement caught the eye, while he also clearly had a sense of adventure.

Thrillingly, he was in the right place to meet Benayoun’s pull back, his instinctive shot from 10 yards sweeping past David de Gea and nestling in the bottom of the Kop net, triggering an outbreak of euphoria around the ground.

When he was substituted in the final minute of normal time, fatigue having nullified his ability to make an impact, Aquilani received a terrific ovation; signed to make an influence on the games that matter, Il Principino had done precisely that.

It was just what Liverpool needed, a goal which sent confidence surging through the ranks but of equal importance was the reaction of Carragher and Gerrard, the two stalwarts beckoning their colleague back into position.

One goal was good but, all the time, the same idea was swirling around the majority of those inside Anfield; Atletico’s potential to be swift, slick and deadly meant only if Liverpool’s tally read three would they be able to relax.

Yet can you ever really relax during a European semi-final?

Every time Atletico streamed forward after the break, the fragility of Liverpool’s position was brought more sharply into focus; successful tackles were given the same kind of ovation as a shot on target, last-gasp blocks elicited thunderous applause.

Many sides have crumbled after conceding a goal at the time Atletico did but, belying their travails in La Liga, they defended stoically, were well organised and kept Liverpool on the back foot for much of the second half.

On the evidence presented here, it was easy to see why they were a Champions League side at the beginning of the campaign, one that harboured such high hopes but floundered during a bleak midwinter – sound familiar?

The way Atletico had played, it came as no surprise that extra-time was required – it was the least their efforts deserved – and, perhaps, Rafa Benitez was glad of a chance to revive a team that had started to look out on its feet.

Whatever he said clearly worked the oracle as within five minutes of the re-start, Benayoun, who had been a figure of such industry all night, latched on to a terrific ball from Lucas, beat the offside trap and smashed a drive past de Gea.

Despite the euphoria, there was still no scope for breathing easy and Atletico proved why when one of their raids secured a priceless away goal, Glen Johnson fatally hesitating to let Jose Antonio Reyes in; he, in turn, picked out Forlan to do the rest.

Given the way Liverpool’s campaign has played out, there could not have been anything more darkly appropriate than for a former Manchester United striker, one who has caused mayhem on this ground before, to administer such a devastating blow.

And with that, you knew the game was up.

When something similar happened against Olympiakos in December 2004, Anfield crackled with defiance but this moment – the latest in the season from hell – was one setback too many.

That de Gea never had a save to make in the second period of extra time said everything, Liverpool ultimately being betrayed by a lack of quality.

Good luck to Atletico in the final; for Liverpool the rebuilding must start here.

LIVERPOOL (4-2-3-1): Reina: Mascherano (Degen 110), Carragher, Agger, Johnson: Gerrard, Lucas: Benayoun (Pacheco 113), Aquilani (El Zhar 89), Babel: Kuyt. SUBS: Cavalieri (GK), Kyrgiakos, Ngog, Ayala.

Goals – Aquilani (44), Benayoun (95) Bookings – Gerrard (43), Aquilani (51), Carragher (82)

ATLETICO MADRID (4-4-2): de Gea: Valera, Dominguez, Perea, Lopez: Reyes, Assuncao (Jurado , Raul Garcia, Simao: Forlan (Camacho 117), Aguero (Salvio 120). SUBS: Asenjo (GK), Juanito, Ujfalusi, Cabrera.

Goals – Forlan (103) Bookings Assuncao (52), Valera (67), Dominguez (105). Attendance – 42,040

Copyright - Liverpool Echo

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