Friday, 23 April 2010

Tie Set Perfectly for Anfield Decider

Liverpool will have to overturn a first leg deficit for the third time in a row if they are to progress to the inaugrual Europa League final in Hamburg, Germany, after poor defending early on cost the Reds dear as they fell to a one goal defeat in Madrid.

After a long journey to Spain via train, coach and eventually plane the Reds started sluggishly, conceding what turned out to be the winning goal after only 8 minutes had been played. Horrible defending from Liverpool cost them dearly here as former Manchester United striker Diego Forlan scored a crucial early goal.

Jurado easily beat Carragher on the left edge of the 18 yard box and managed to cross the ball into the danger area. The ball travelled past the desperate lunge of Kyrgiakos to Forlan, who had been granted the freedom of Madrid in the 6 yard box. His first attempt on goal was a pathetic header that fell to the ground however he beat Reina to the second ball and squeezed it past the keeper and into the back of the net. Carragher tried to hack the ball away off the line but he couldn't quite get his foot to the ball.

It was the worst possible start to the match, and one that could have seen Liverpool disintegrate, however the Reds regained their composure and attemped to quiet the raucous home crowd with a period of possession.

They succeeded and even created a few opportunites to equalise quickly. On 17 minutes Kyrgiakos passed to Kuyt, who then played a neat one-two with Steven Gerrard. Kuyt fluffed his shot from 20 yards out however it bounced perfectly for the Reds as it landed at the feet of Yossi Benayoun, who beat the keeper from 8 yards out. Unfortunately the goal was incorrectly ruled out for offside, denying the away side a critical away goal, which would have completely transformed not just the game, but the tie as a whole.

It was a disappointing error from the linesman, and one which could prove fatal for Liverpool's chances of reaching the final of the Europa League as away goals have become so crucial in European football.

Only a minute later Gerrard had a fantastic chance to level the match up at 1-1 as Lucas played him in on goal over the top of two Athletico defenders. Gerrard's left footed effort was disappointing though as he failed to test the keeper as his strike went into the side-netting.

The rest of the first half was incident free as both teams struggled for midfield superiority. Liverpool managed to contain the home side well, and held the ball well however, as has been the case for the majority of the season, we failed to create any clear cut chances without the injured Fernando Torres. He was a massive miss again last night as Athletico Madrid's attacking style regularly left gaps at the back which Torres would have exploited.

The next real opening went Athletico's way as Ujfalusi and Jose Antonio Reyes combined well down the right. Reyes, who used to play for Arsene Wenger's Arsenal team, ran at the Reds backline down the right wing, and looked to sneak into the box between Agger and Benayoun however an excellent slide tackle from the Israeli stopped him in his tracks. The ball travelled into the path of Ujfalusi, who then beat Agger and Carragher before firing a shot into the side-netting when well placed.

Liverpool went into the break relieved that they were only goal goal down as, after conceding such an early goal, it was crucial that we didn't concede another before the break. The away side came out for the second half aiming to continue to frustrate the Spanish side, whilst also testing De Gea in the Madrid goal, in an attempt to secure a vital away goal to take back to Merseyside.

After only 5 minutes of the second half had been played Gerrard went close to scoring for the Reds. Kuyt's impressive cross-field ball was chested down by Ngog into the path of our captain, who stormed past the Athletico defence and looked to be through on goal, however a fantastic recovery tackle denied him a goalscoring opportunity.

Soon after a poor pass from Maschernano was easily intercepted. The ball was played through to an Athletico attacker who was past the Reds backline and alone in the penalty area with only Reina to beat. Nonsensically, he tried to head the ball past the keeper and Reina comfortably collected the ball with a minimum of fuss.

3 minutes later Reina made a world class save to keep Liverpool in the game. Ujfalusi, who was causing Agger problems down the left, stormed to the by-line before crossing the ball magnificently to the back past. Glen Johnson slipped allowing Simao, who has been one of Rafa's transfer targets in recent years, space and time to fire home.

The Portugese shot at goal from 6 yards out expecting to see the net bulge however a world class stop from Pepe Reina denied the home side a decisive second goal. It was a wonderful save from a world class goalkeeper.

Liverpool responded midway through the second half as Babel played a good ball to set Kuyt through on goal. Unfortunately the Dutchman's first touch was awful and took him away from goal. Kuyt regained his composure before clipping the ball back into the centre of the area, where several Reds players tried to get on the end of his cross however none of them were successful as the Madrid defence eventually cleared the ball away from the goalmouth.

Ujfalusi continued to test Agger and Benayoun down the left, and went close to doubling Athletico Madrid's advantge after 76 minutes. The Czech international cut inside from the right before firing a fierce effort goalwards. Reina did well to beat the ball away however it went back into the danger area instead of out wide. Thankfully Carragher made up for his error in the build up to the goal by making a brilliant clearance from only a few yards out.

It was a warning sign for Liverpool that the Reds heeded as Athletico failed to seriously test Reina in the Liverpool goal during the last 10 minutes. In fact it was Liverpool who went closest to scoring with 5 minutes left with the best move of the match. Johnson received the ball on the right, then played a good one-two with Nabil El Zhar, who had replaced Ngog who was struggling with a back injury.

Johnson ran on with purpose into the centre of the pitch before passing to the feet of Dirk Kuyt. England's first choice right back expected to complete another one-two with the Dutch forward. Instead, Kuyt played an intelligent pass to Gerrard, who was in space in the penalty area to the right of the goal. Stevie placed an inviting cross into the centre of the area however no Liverpool played managed to get his head to the ball, and Athletico cleared the danger.

Liverpool will go into the second leg as slight favourites thanks to our tremendous record at home this season, which has seen us claim victory in 13 Premier League home matches this season, losing only twice. However, Liverpool should remain wary of the threat posed by a positive Athletico Madrid side, who will set out to score an all important away goal that would leave Liverpool needing to score three times to progress.

Liverpool have the experience of European competition to be able to cope with the pressure and proceed to the final. Moreover, Liverpool have managed to overturn first leg deficit's at Anfield in the last two rounds of this tournament as we came from 1-0 down to beat Lille 4-1 on aggregate before recovering from being 2-1 down against Benfica to progress to the semi-final thanks to a 5-3 aggregate success.

We're all set up for what should be yet another European night to remember at Anfield next Thursday.


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