UEFA Champions League
Liverpool 1 Atlético Madrid 1
Liverpool and Atlético went into this match in the knowledge that victory would see them into the knock-out phase of the competition. Their meeting in Madrid had ended 1-1 and the two sides were separated only by goal difference at the top of the table. A draw would mean more work was needed, and resting players for at least one of the last two games wouldn’t be an option. A win for Rafa would allow him to try out some of the younger players who made the squad through their “home-grown” status – in theory at least.
From the start it was obvious Liverpool were hungry and desperate to banish that last-gasp defeat at White Hart Lane to the past. Within a couple of minutes of the start we saw a real chance for Liverpool, Agger screaming for a penalty as his marker took the ball off his foot as he was ready to strike from inside the box. Keane, who has been playing with niggles for a few weeks, hopped away from the incident looking to be in some pain.
With Torres still in the stands, still not recovered from the hamstring injury sustained on duty for Spain, Rafa Benítez waited to see if the Irishman could carry on despite the knock. He did, although his withdrawal twenty minutes from the end may have been because of the knock rather than just for tactical reasons.
Looking at Atlético’s formation before the game it suggested a defensive approach would be in force from the Spanish side, but after ten minutes of the game it was clear they were looking to score a goal of their own. They didn’t get a shot at goal, but were looking dangerous nonetheless.
In the twelfth minute Agger did get a decision from the referee, a free-kick outside the box. The Atlético goalkeeper looked worried as he batted the ball away from his goal. Liverpool needed to keep the pressure on and avoid giving Atlético – particularly former target Simao – any time on the ball.
Celebrations from the home fans began, for a split second, on 14 minutes when Keane chested down a brilliant Alonso pass, turned and shot powerfully at goal. It was wide, but only just, and with the net rippling some parts of the ground celebrated the “goal” momentarily. Keane turned away disappointed at his narrow miss, and again looked to be in pain.
Atlético continued to threaten, winning a corner on 18 minutes, but Liverpool turned defence into attack, a counter attack only breaking down with an unpunished Atlético handball. Liverpool appealed strongly, but the referee waved play on. Atlético did play on, catching Liverpool off guard, and Simao wasted a golden chance to put his side in front and blacken Rick Parry’s name a little more. Liverpool had tried to sign the player early on in the Rafa Benítez era, Rick Parry coming back empty handed from his talks – Simao scored Atlético’s equaliser in Madrid last month.
A hopeful ball into the box from Fabio Aurelio resulted in a Liverpool corner, which in turn resulted in Mascherano trying to curl one into the net from some distance. Atlético were restricting Liverpool to long shots, Liverpool seemed to be getting frustrated.
Just after the half-hour mark Robbie Keane was through on goal, but good goalkeeping and perhaps some of the effects of his confidence being hit by a lack of goals saw the number seven take one touch too many and the chance was lost.
Liverpool were controlling the game, as Rafa always likes them to do, but without a goal it only takes one good break to see that control count for nothing. And in the 38th minute Atlético got that break. Liverpool were caught out, full-back Lopez showing great skill both in collecting the ball and then in finding Maxi from the right wing. Liverpool 0 Atlético 1.
The Liverpool fans were silenced, Atlético’s travelling support making all the noise. In fact Atlético’s fans showed that the elements of their support who left their club facing a UEFA charge were not representative of their most dedicated followers.
Liverpool have learned how to come back from behind this season, often after starting poorly, but with the Spurs defeat still fresh in the minds of the players the belief didn’t seem to be there this time. Liverpool needed half-time and a good Rafa Benítez team-talk.
Ten minutes into the second half a cross from Aurelio was headed narrowly over the bar by Agger. Liverpool were threatening, were getting close, but those chances had to be taken before a fast Atlético side made profit from another counter-attack.
Forlan was appealing for a penalty from one of those counter-attacks on the hour mark, and then it was time for Rafa to introduce his “impact” player, Ryan Babel. Spanish winger Riera made way.
Liverpool still seemed unable to break Atlético down. Steven Gerrard, admittedly under some pressure, half-volleyed over the bar from outside the area a couple of minutes after Babel’s arrival, Liverpool letting desperation take over. A minute later and again it was Agger with a good chance – and only good goalkeeping stopped him scoring. Agger was stretching to hit the ball, but it still needed work from the keeper to prevent Liverpool equalising.
Soon after it was Gerrard once again trying the long shots, on 64 minutes, his shot blocked this time without it even making it into the penalty-area. A minute later and the captain shot from distance again – this time firing wide. Five minutes later he got a taste of what might be if got into the box. Shooting from close range he came close to equalising, but leaning back slightly, stretching for the ball, it went over the bar and into the Kop.
Rafa then decided it was time to give Keane another early exit, as has become a regular occurrence this season. The Irish captain looked dejected as he made way for Ngog with still twenty minutes to go, but Rafa will say he needed to give the player a rest with Torres still out. Atlético’s Aguero came on for Forlan at the same time.
As well as getting a lot of chances, Agger got an injury – but with Lucas now on the field in place of Mascherano, Liverpool had no more subs. It’s unlikely Rafa would have replaced him anyway, and what seemed to be a dislocated finger was treated quickly, Agger sent wincing back into action. The next chance of note came from Agger’s partner in central defence, a rare Jamie Carragher shot forcing another decent save from Franco.
It was looking a lost cause, looking like the Spanish side were heading for the knockout phase, with Liverpool’s good start to the competition forgotten, their progress dependent on the next two games.
As the 90 minutes came to an end, a familiar face was standing on the touch line waiting to make his first appearance at Anfield in a year-and-a-half. Luis Garcia will always be remembered by Liverpool fans above all else for his goal against Chelsea in 2005’s semi-final. It was a goal that saw Liverpool make it to Istanbul, bringing home number five. A goal that had added sweetness for Liverpool fans, because of how much it upset Jose Mourinho, how much it made up for that “shushing” gesture a few months earlier in the Carling Cup. When he left the club in summer 2007 a lot of fans were saddened, but his departure helped bring Fernando Torres to the club, his transfer part of the deal. It softened the blow, and he looked pretty happy in his Atlético kit, all set to suck his thumb in celebration of goals in Madrid. He returned to Anfield – but only briefly. The whole ground applauded him onto the field; by now most Liverpool fans were resigned to defeat, but Luis deserved a welcome.
Garcia’s appearance seemed to be to ensure he got his good welcome, but more likely was to waste a bit of time and help Atlético see the tie out. The fourth official soon indicated that there would be four minutes of added time, and the crowd urged Liverpool on to try and salvage something.
Liverpool had played fairly well on the night. Gerrard’s long shots seemed wasteful, his desperation to score clouding his ability to look for better options. Perhaps that’s what Rafa meant by “passion” when he spoke about his substitution of the captain in last season’s Goodison derby. He’d worked hard and tried to create chances for others as well as himself. But the fact that the more memorable chances had fallen to the centre-backs said a lot about the game. Liverpool had worked hard, tried hard, but were set to lose because of a lapse in concentration, losing to Atlético’s only shot on target. That’s not to take anything away from what was a very good goal from the Spanish side.
Then Liverpool’s luck came back.
A penalty award that was kind to say the least meant Liverpool had a chance, in injury time, to rescue the game. Rafa suggested after the match that this award made up for the ones that got away in the first half, but Atlético’s players weren’t thinking of that as their dreams of leaving victorious seemed shattered.
Mariano Pernia was adjudged to have fouled Gerrard, and there certainly was contact. But the contact came from the fact two players were throwing themselves at the same ball. When the contact came, Gerrard made sure he went down, made sure the officials could see it. The linesman flagged, and the referee pondered for what seemed an age. But he decided to trust his linesman’s judgement, and pointed to the spot.
Gerrard wasn’t going to complain. Pernia was though, clearly feeling the decision was harsh, and he was booked. This was seemingly for dissent after he and his team-mates had surrounded the referee. The protests went on for a couple of minutes, all the while Gerrard waiting to take the kick he’d just earned his side.
For some players the protests and the way injury time was ticking away would be enough to eat away at their confidence. Not for Gerrard, not this season. He seems to have matured enormously this term, and he was completely focussed on the task in hand.
All of those shots from long range were forgotten as he lined up to shoot from 12 yards. It would have been hard to have hit a more perfect penalty. The goalkeeper went the wrong way, but Gerrard’s shot was high into the right-hand-side of the goal. Liverpool had equalised.
What happened next is something Atlético’s players might wish to forget, three more players getting booked as their protests carried on when they should have been taking the kick-off. Atlético ended the game with five booked in all, only one of whom had been booked at the end of the 90 minutes.
When the whistle went, Gerrard started to celebrate, clearly feeling relief that a point had been salvaged. He held back a little though, perhaps remembering that had his side taken some of their chances there’d have been no need for that last minute penalty.
Gerrard said afterwards: “It was a big result for us tonight and a big point. Good teams usually don’t lose two games in a row and so it was important we got something. The first half wasn’t good enough and we know that. We upped it in the second half, played at a higher tempo and pressed harder.”
Progress remains in Liverpool’s hands, one win out of the next two games would assure they went through, and even a draw might be enough. Gerrard said: “We’re still in a strong position in the group now. We showed a lot of character tonight and we have to take that into the next league game.”
As for the penalty, Gerrard insisted Martin Hansson’s decision was correct: “In my mind it was a penalty. I got there first and he came into the back of me. If it had happened anywhere else on the pitch it would be a free kick, so it was a penalty. I can understand their disappointment because of the timing of it. If it had happened at the other end, we would have been livid.”
Boss Rafa Benítez agreed: “Had that offence against Steven taken place in the middle of the pitch it would have been a free-kick, so it was a penalty.”
Was Rafa pleased with a draw or disappointed not to win? “The key for us was not to lose in such a tight match,” he said. “We are still right up at the top with them (Atlético), we can both qualify.”
His opposite number Javier Aguirre graciously stayed away from condemning the referee for the decision: “I was a long way from the incident so I could not see properly. But how things change in one minute of football.
“We were in the last 16 and Marseille had beaten PSV, and then we concede a penalty and it is snatched away, but we just have to keep on fighting. I was still very happy with the team effort and the way we worked as a group, maybe we did not get the win we deserved. We have produced an outstanding team performance against a very good team and we are still very close to qualification.”
20 Mascherano (Lucas, 77)
8 Gerrard GOAL: 90+5 (pen)
11 Riera (Babel, 61)
7 Keane (Ngog, 71)
19 Babel (Riera, 61)
21 Lucas (Mascherano, 77)
24 Ngog (Keane, 71)
3 Antonio Lopez
21 Perea Booked: 90+5
5 Heitinga Booked: 90+6
4 Pernia Booked: 90+4
8 Raul Garcia
12 Paulo Assuncao
18 Maniche Booked: 67
11 Maxi GOAL: 37
7 Forlan (Aguero, 71)
20 Simao (Luis Garcia, 90)
9 Luis Garcia (Simao, 90)
10 Aguero (Forlan, 71) Booked: 90+6
14 Sinama Pongolle
STATS: (Liverpool – Atlético)
Possession: 59% – 41%
Shots on target: 5 – 1
Shots off target: 9 – 4
Corners: 11 – 2
Fouls: 7 – 14
Referee: Martin Hansson.