Thursday, April 29, 2010 ESPNsoccernet: April 30, 4:29 PM UK
Liverpool's problems are laid bare
Richard Jolly, Anfield
When Liverpool were eliminated by a goal from a former Manchester United man, when Atletico Madrid ensured the exit of a side managed by a Real fan, when the added exertions of extra time endangered their pursuit of fourth place on Sunday, it was all too typical.
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For them, this was disappointment, Anfield style. It was a game when every issue, from injuries to ill-fortune, from a lack of strength in depth to the concession of late goals, from managerial decisions to the consequences of boardroom machinations, came together against them. It was 120 minutes to sum up a season.
A year of unwanted surprises contained another, courtesy of Diego Forlan. The Uruguayan's 102nd-minute goal sent Atletico Madrid to the Europa League final. Liverpool, winners on the night, level on aggregate but out on away goals, were thwarted. They began with ambition and ended with attrition, both on the evening and over the campaign, but endeavour was in vain.
Even the consolation prize has provided no consolation. Liverpool will end the year without silverware. Out of contention in three competitions in an awful autumn, crashing out of a fourth in a worrying winter, a fifth cruelly escaped them.
Rafa Benitez's side only led for seven minutes over the two legs. But, after Yossi Benayoun struck, it was possible to envisage a second Liverpudlian invasion of Hamburg, marching to their Merseybeat to face Fulham. Then reality, in the form of Forlan, intervened. And, devastatingly, Liverpool's team, like their season, appeared unsatisfactory again.
With Anfield's most famous Atletico fan, Fernando Torres, sat in the directors' box, and Dirk Kuyt's unthreatening toil in attack, with a substitutes' bench that meant the untried Dani Pacheco and the inadequate Nabil El Zhar and Philipp Degen were the chosen replacements, there was no Olympiakos moment this time; no barely credible display of brilliance, no example of escapology, no salvation from Steven Gerrard.
Instead, an evening that promised much delivered little. It seemed that every scapegoat would have his day as Alberto Aquilani scored the first goal and Lucas created the second. The outcome, however, may heighten the search for more. A glance at the players who completed the game highlighted the slenderness of the squad; a consequence of embarrassing owners and managerial choices alike.
While Mohamed Al Fayed could celebrate Fulham's success on the Craven Cottage pitch, the Anfield pariahs, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, have nothing to show for their reign, save, they hope, a huge profit. Their manager has no tangible reward for his last four seasons. He wants half a new team and the shortcomings of the current crop are increasingly apparent.
"We were talking before that we needed three, four, five players," said Benitez. "I agree with that. Things have changed in the last two or three years. We have had to balance the books. I don't know what will happen in the summer."
It is an issue for Liverpool and Juventus alike. Cagey about his future, he was adventurous in his tactics, unlikely risk taker though he appears. His team selection was either a calculated gamble, fielding players out of position to permit a more attacking approach, or merely the choice of the last men standing. It was 4-2-3-1 when Liverpool weren't in possession, almost 2-3-4-1 when they were. It was not a game when Benitez could be fairly accused of defensiveness.
His side began with urgency, Benayoun drawing a save in the opening 10 seconds and Kuyt spurning a great opening. Then, a minute before half-time, the most expensive ornament provided an injection of class. Benayoun's cross was a cutback towards the penalty spot. Aquilani swivelled to hit it on the half volley, positioning his shot perfectly in the corner of the net for his second Liverpool goal.
A sterile second half gave way to an eventful extra-time. Lucas' terrific chipped pass was followed by a drilled finish from Benayoun. David de Gea got a hand to it, but was unable to prevent it from going in.
But then Liverpool's version of musical chairs ensured the final version of Ferry Cross The Mersey was a mournful rendition. Otherwise excellent as the makeshift right-back, Javier Mascherano allowed Forlan to elude him at the far post. Jose Antonio Reyes beat the auxiliary left-back Glen Johnson in the air before delivering a cross with the outside of his left foot. The on-rushing Forlan swept it into the net. "It was an emotional game, an emotional occasion," said his manager, Quique Sanchez Flores. "It was an amazing night."
For Benitez, the son of an Atletico fan and a man who chose to follow Real, it was a sadly predictable one. Tormentors have abounded and the latest served his time at Old Trafford. The scorer of the solitary goal in the first leg and, infamously, a double at Anfield, aided by disastrous goalkeeping from Jerzy Dudek, in his Manchester United days, Forlan has a habit of hurting Liverpool. But pain has become a constant in this campaign.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Yossi Benayoun - A threat from the opening whistle, he almost scored straight away, created one goal and made another. He does tend to tire but his substitution, along with Aquilani's, to be replaced by inferior players appeared odd.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Benayoun, Aquilani, Mascherano and Gerrard all performed well but with Ryan Babel enduring one of his off nights and Kuyt providing more effort than incision, they missed Torres. Extra-time was excellent news for Chelsea, who arrive at Anfield on Sunday.
ATLETICO MADRID VERDICT: That they reached a first continental final in 24 years by only winning two of their 14 European games this season is a consequence in part of the system. But any side with a front four that consists of Reyes, Forlan, Sergio Aguero and Simao possesses plenty of talent. Underachievers in La Liga, Atletico could end the campaign with a cup double.