Champions League Last 16 – February 19 2008 – Result.
Liverpool 2 Inter Milan 0
Rafa Benítez and his players answered the critics in the best way possible tonight – on the pitch.
Critics will find fault with tonight’s performance, but in the main those critics are scrambling to save face after being made to eat their words. Liverpool dominated this game from start to finish, even before Inter were down to ten men, and could have won by a far greater margin. Torres alone had a shot saved and another just an inch wide in close succession, and two strong penalty appeals were turned down.
Inter Milan are 11 points clear at the top of Serie A, have lost one game in all competitions, and have gone 29 games since September without losing. Tonight none of that was apparent, not because Milan played badly, but because Liverpool played so well.
The newspapers were expecting a chance to write Rafa’s obituary, sending up their usually London-based staff to help out with the attack on the Spaniard. The defeat against Barnsley on Saturday in the FA Cup was an awful result, but as much down to a good Barnsley performance as anything. Liverpool were foiled by a goalkeeper playing out of his skin at one end, and one playing out of touch at the other. Liverpool hadn’t played so badly, but headlines suggested otherwise which is why the big name reporters were ordered to Anfield. No doubt they were sitting glum-faced at the end, but they’ll continue to hover from a distance until their opportunity comes.
The unfortunate side to the modern-day fan is that not all fans are willing to stick by the club and its players, unwilling to support them through bad times and instead demanding nothing but good. That’s not what support is all about. Entertainment can be demanded at the cinema or the theatre, where you can ask for your money back if you aren’t happy. Football is slightly different – what you pay for includes, unfortunately, despair from time to time.
Performances all round were much better tonight. Even the noise levels were up, but that’s always the case on European nights. Anfield has been the butt of criticism from opposition fans more and more of late, but tonight it played a large part in helping the side come out fighting.
Rafa had made five changes from the team beaten by Barnsley, but this team closely resembled the one that got a draw against Chelsea in the last league game – a game Chelsea had never looked like winning. The changes between that game and tonight saw Riise replaced by Aurelio and Torres in for Crouch. Skrtel played at Stamford Bridge due to a Hyypia injury, but those roles were reversed.
The rotation issue won’t go away for Rafa, and it will remain until he wins every single game comfortably or until certain elements of the press get their way and he’s the next managerial casualty. But in reality Rafa is not rotating as much as he did, especially when domestic cup games are excluded. The Champions League is the most important competition for the owners, as it brings in the most money. Rafa’s had to sacrifice a league game before now after learning he’d be sacked if he lost the Champions League game that followed three days later. It’s therefore no surprise to see he played a strong, but not his strongest, side on Saturday. His priority, the owners’ priority, is this competition. He needs to keep them happy, and they need success to pay the loans.
Liverpool’s first goal came from Dirk Kuyt. He deserved it. He’s worked tirelessly through a run of poor finishing, bad luck and heavy – sometimes excessive – criticism. His confidence came back enough for him to score on Saturday, and tonight he scored again – two in two games and his ninth of the season. It came in the 85th minute, no doubt causing those London reporters to hastily re-write their stories with a slant of “can’t even beat ten men”.
Gerrard made sure of the win, and gave the Reds a much-needed cushion for that second leg, when he scored a wonderful goal on 90 minutes.
Materazzi’s sending off, after half an hour, was for his second bookable offence. Both were certainly bookable offences, but the former Evertonian was probably unlucky to go off in that referees often seem to be lenient where second yellows are concerned. The ref held the second yellow high, then seemed to realise rather belatedly that he’d already booked the defender.
His sending off came because he’d been trouble for that first half hour by Fernando Torres. Liverpool were upsetting a Milan side who had planned to defend, to keep hold of that unbeaten record that stretched back to a Champions League group defeat against Fenerbahce in September. Away from home their record was three defeats in 45 games. They look certain to lift their third successive Serie A title in the spring, but were made to look quite ordinary by a determined team.
Before the sending-off Liverpool’s chances included a shot by Jamie Carragher that hit Maicon’s hand for what Carra thought should have been a penalty – and that was in the opening minutes. Babel and Hyypia forced saves from the keeper. Torres was causing problems, including the two fouls Materazzi was booked for. The first one may have been a little harsh, although the card seemed to appear after the player had started to shout at the referee for his decision.
Liverpool kept plugging away, playing at a high tempo and getting their full-backs forward to support the three forwards. Milan were stretched but hung on determinedly.
Fabio Capello, England’s Italian manager, sat watching the game with Brian Barwick. He claimed last autumn that he’d been approached by Liverpool for Rafa’s job, but the club denied it. Their failure to deny the same kind of story about Jurgen Klinsmann rang alarm bells for Reds fans, who were later told that the lack of a denial in that case was because he actually had been approached.
Former Arsenal midfielder Patrick Vieira came on in the second half, Inter taking striker Julio Cruz off the field as they saw a need to try and hold on to the draw. The change didn’t slow Liverpool down, Torres getting a brilliant shot in that was matched with a brilliant save. Hyypia headed over soon after and then on the hour mark came Liverpool’s second penalty appeal. Vierra was guilty of handling the ball in the area, the ref asked his assistant if it was a penalty and the assistant adopted the stance of Vierra’s old boss Arsene Wenger – he didn’t see it, instead the Reds got a corner.
After Torres had shot a fraction wide Rafa decided to bring off one of the three central midfielders, replacing Lucas with Peter Crouch. Ryan Babel was tiring after putting in an excellent performance that showed why Rafa bought the promising youngster at such a high price. In his place came Jermaine Pennant. Crouch had a shot that went woefully wide, but was an important distraction to the opposition.
Inter lost Ivan Cordoba with 15 minutes to go, and it was certainly not going to hinder Liverpool that they had. They’d survived the one scare of the second half when Inter managed to win a corner, and were looking to kill the game off. Pennant’s cross looked slightly overhit, missing both Torres and Crouch, but Kuyt had moved inside and was on hand to hit a shot into the ground and on into the net.
Surprisingly Rafa was seen complaining to a fourth official after that about time being wasted. He wasn’t asking his players to hang on as might be expected; he was actually urging them to get a second. They did, Gerrard finding himself some space to hit a shot low from outside the area onto the inside of the far post and in.
There’s a three-week wait now until the second leg at the San Siro, which is in use by Inter’s fellow tenants AC Milan in two weeks. Two goals is a great cushion, a clean sheet means no away goals, but Liverpool really have to look to take the game to Inter. One goal for the Reds in the San Siro would leave Inter needing four, and that’s the kind of fact that needs to be in the player’s minds from the off.
Afterwards Rafa said: “This result is good for the confidence of the team, the supporters and the club. I always had confidence in my players, they played well with passion and they passed the ball excellently. It was clearly much better than the last match – and even though Inter Milan had ten men for a long spell, they were still formidable opponents who were organised, defended well and were always capable of scoring on the break.
“I think everyone knew we needed this. It was really important for the club and fans that we won. I have always had confidence in this team and we will win a lot of games. I accept that we needed this win as a team – we needed to progress in the competition. As a manager, you are always pleased with a win like this – and this is now the time to be happy.
“The red card was clear. It was for two yellow cards, and the referee was right. As for the penalty, everyone could see the Inter player handling the ball. But you cannot change things now. It is an excellent win, made better by a clean sheet.
“I know people will say they cannot understand how we can lose to Barnsley and then beat Inter Milan, but on Saturday we changed the team, we had 10 internationals on the pitch and missed a lot of chances. This time we were better – we had far less chances but we scored two good goals. It gives us a great chance in the second leg, but we must be careful because Inter are a very good side and they will make it very difficult for us at the San Siro.”
“Against a good team like Inter, who are a very well organised outfit, you have to be patient and wait for the chances to come, because they will. It will be difficult for them to come back now, but they have a lot of good players and while we are confident, we will not be complacent.
“The determination to prove people wrong was no different to any other game. We’ve not had much luck of late and the confidence is low but we must keep keeping working and that’s what we did.
“I’m also pleased for Kuyt. I have a lot of confidence in him because his commitment is always 100% and every team needs a player like that.”
On rotation, which Fernando Torres has already said players like him accept, especially given they knew that was how Rafa worked when they committed themselves to the club, Rafa said: “I rotate because I want to win. You can play with the same eleven all year long and finish fourth, and that’s a bad result. We have to rotate because our squad is not as good as Arsenal, Chelsea or Manchester United.”
Earlier on in the evening Rafa spoke to ITV Sport: “We had confidence and we needed to be passionate and the team was doing the right things, moving the ball, passing the ball, crossing and trying to win the second ball so at the end I had confidence but two goals in the last minutes always is very, very positive.”
He was asked what he said to his players in the interval: “Keep playing, keep passing the ball, keep trying to play good football, because we will have more opportunities.
Asked what pleased him most about the game, he said: “The attitude of the players was really good the commitment, and also as always the supporters.”
He was asked if tonight’s performance showed that his men are playing for him, to which he replied: “These players are playing for the club, that’s the most important thing. We are a fantastic club so they are playing with passion for the club.”
As for the penalty decisions: “I think that we have one in the first that we were demanding and another in the second half – clear, but anyway you cannot change things now.
“We have confidence – but we also know they are a good team, Inter Milan are a very good team, so we must be careful.”
Inter’s coach Roberto Mancini was unhappy with the red card: “I think the referee got both the yellow card decisions wrong, neither were worthy of cautions, and the sending-off changed the game. I was not surprised by this performance from Liverpool; I knew they would put in a good performance after what happened at the weekend, because they are a good side. But Marco’s sending-off changed things dramatically. It is hard enough to play at Anfield with 11 men, but with 10 it is very tough.
“But I will not concede that the task is now beyond us. We have another 90 minutes on our own ground, although the second goal they scored has made it all a lot harder.
“But it is not out of our reach. I accept that Steven Gerrard played well, but that only happened after Marco was sent off. It was only then that Gerrard got so much space to use.
“We knew that after Liverpool’s defeat at the weekend they were going to come out all guns blazing. However, Steven Gerrard’s goal is not our death knell. Other teams have come back from such deficits.”
Reds captain and scorer of the second, Gerrard, said afterwards: “It’s a big night, a big win, but it means nothing unless we finish the job off in three weeks time. We’re not going to get carried away. It’s a good performance, we’re happy with the clean sheet, and a two goal lead, but you’re talking about a second game against a top side so you mustn’t underestimate them.
“Not surprised at all – two bookable offences so he deserved to go. But when that happened, Inter Milan got a lot of men behind the ball. They were playing for a 0-0 and so it was important that we were patient. In the last ten minutes we got our reward. They were very tired, we kept the tempo high and eventually the breakthrough came.
He was asked, given the pressure he’s been under, if he thought this was an important win for Rafa: “Yeah of course, Rafa of course, but you know the team, the fans, the people upstairs – everyone connected with the club, it was a big win for everyone. I don’t think it’s fair to single individuals out for the praise, I think we all deserve the praise together.” Gerrard’s comments may be harmless, but they hardly help quash the rumours that Gerrard and other players have lost all faith in their manager.
Liverpool: Reina, Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Aurelio, Gerrard, Mascherano, Lucas (Crouch 64), Babel (Pennant 72), Kuyt, Torres
Unused subs: Itandje, Riise, Benayoun, Alonso, Arbeloa
Goals: Kuyt 85, Gerrard 90
Internazionale: Julio Cesar, Maicon, Cordoba (Burdisso 75), Materazzi, Chivu, Zanetti, Stankovic, Cambiasso, Maxwell, Cruz (Vieira 55), Ibrahimovic
Unused subs: Toldo, Figo, Crespo, Maniche, Suazo
Booked: Chivu, Materazzi
Sent Off: Materazzi (30)
Referee: Frank De Bleeckere (Belgium).