Depleted Reds fall short despite faultless effort.How apt that, in a week in which plenty of talk has centered around whether Liverpool would sabotage Manchester United’s season, it should be United who get their retaliation in first.
Diego Forlan is still sung about regularly at Old Trafford, and his extra-time winner for Atletico Madrid in a captivating Europa League semi-final at Anfield will ensure that his name reverberates for many more years to come.
For Rafael Benitez, this evening could represent his final European hurrah at Liverpool. With reports increasingly speculating on the Spaniard's future, and Serie A giants Juventus prepared to test his resolve with an offer of power, money and control - three things Liverpool cannot offer in their current state - there was the feeling that Anfield was witnessing Benitez's swansong this evening.
And perhaps emblematic of a tumultuous campaign, Rafa's Reds just came up short. Even if it wasn't by much.
They had looked to be heading for Hamburg, and a final date with Fulham on May 12 when Yossi Benayoun struck in extra time, to add to Alberto Aquilani's first-half strike, but Forlan's intervention seven minutes later punctured the Anfield balloon, and sent the Spaniards, backed by their fantastically vocal traveling support, to their first Europa League final.
It was tough on Benitez and his side, who had produced a gutsy performance in the face of adversity. Adversity in the shape of an injury list which denied them of star man Fernando Torres as well as both first-choice left-backs, and in the general feeling of inconsistency which has hung over the club like the most persistent of fogs all season.
Yet so often Liverpool’s continental successes have been built upon strength in adversity. Results dating back to the 1960s and 70s under Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley have been built upon a foundation of solidity, a diet of hard work and a passion that transmits itself from the stands to the pitch.
Few arenas can bully opponents like Anfield. Benitez’s assertion yesterday that the Reds’ supporters could act as the “twelfth man” may have been rather predictable, and smacked of playing to the gallery, but it doesn’t make him wrong. Tonight, the capacity crowd conjured up an atmosphere comparable to Chelsea ’05, if not St Etienne ’77, but this time could not sweep their side to glory.
In the end it was basic mistakes from Glen Johnson - one in each leg, unfortunately - which cost Liverpool. His poor positioning had allowed Forlan in for his early goal in the Vicente Calderon a week ago, and he was caught out again tonight as Jose Antonio Reyes nipped in ahead of him to present the Uruguayan with the kind of chance he hasn't missed since his United days. It was Atletico's only major opening until that point.
Forlan to the fore | Diego broke Red hearts
For Benitez the recriminations will be clear. The Europa League had been clung to as potential acquittal in Liverpool's guilty season, but now it has gone, the picture looks bleak once more. By Sunday evening, Liverpool could be nailed into seventh in the Premier League, with no trophy to compensate them.
You could barely fault them this evening - Benayoun and Aquilani, as well as stand-in full-back Javier Mascherano and the excellent Lucas Leiva, did not deserve to be on the losing side. But this season did not become a disaster tonight alone.
A summer of surgery undoubtedly awaits this Liverpool squad - Jonjo Shelvey and Milan Jovanovic are already on their way - and whilst plenty in Red proved their worth during this European campaign, the sense that Benitez's side had over-achieved in recent years is unavoidable.
His Anfield reign has been littered by huge European scalps. Olympiakos, Juventus, Chelsea, Milan, Barcelona, Inter, Arsenal, Real Madrid. All have been vanquished in front of a frenzied Kop. All were better sides than this Atletico outfit.
The difference was, back then, so were Liverpool.
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