Curse of Forlan strikes again to shatter Liverpool's dream
(Agg: 2-2. AET. Atletico win on away goals)
THIS season has been a form of slow torture for Liverpool and Rafael Benitez and, of the thousand cuts incurred, many by their own hand, few will cause more anguish than that administered in extra-time last night by Diego Forlan, the former Manchester United forward.
The worst thing about it, from Liverpool's viewpoint, was that you knew they would not recover. They have made a habit of confounding the odds in European competition in six seasons under Benitez, but when Forlan struck in the 102nd minute, putting Atletico Madrid ahead on away goals after Liverpool had taken a 2-0 lead on the night through Alberto Aquilani and Yossi Benayoun, you sensed that there would be no comeback this time.
Forlan played down his match-winner, and admitted he's feared the worst after Benayoun's goal. "We needed to score -- it doesn't matter who is going to score," the Uruguayan said.
"It was a really difficult game. We knew they would come after us. They played really well in the first half and they deserved that goal. They got the second goal. We knew we needed to score one goal. And that was it."
As for facing Fulham in the final, Forlan said: "Every team is a difficult game. We didn't think about any team (beforehand). We just wanted to qualify."
The laundry man at Liverpool's training ground had assured Benitez that his team would reach the final, but he, of all people, should have known that it would hinge on a clean sheet.
The spattering of applause from the Kop at the final whistle could not conceal the harsh truth that Liverpool have lost their way and that this season, barring the improbability of Champions League qualification, has been a nightmare.
The inescapable feeling, walking up Anfield Road beforehand, was that we had been here before. Once again there was a European game when there seemed to be far more than a trophy at stake for Liverpool, a club whose recent history has been full of such occasions, usually played to a backdrop of uncertainty in the boardroom and intrigue over the manager's future.
It is no way for a club to exist, going from one critical, regime-defining game to another, but it has been the Liverpool way under Benitez and under the calamitous ownership of Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr. It is no way to exist, but at least the Europa League has brought Benitez and his players something on which to focus as uncertainty persists over his and the club's future.
Clearly it was this fixture, rather than Juventus, that had been occupying Benitez's mind in the build-up.
As the first half culminated with Aquilani's excellent goal, swept home right-footed from Yossi Benayoun's cross, it seemed that Benitez had got it just right. It had not been an overwhelming first-half performance, but Liverpool's lead was merited on the basis that they had kept their concentration and maintained their football at a high tempo, with Steven Gerrard enjoying himself in a deeper role.
Atletico 'keeper David De Gea was beaten on the half-hour by Daniel Agger, but the referee's assistant was correct in flagging offside. Around that time, Atletico had briefly looked the more likely goalscorers, breaking intelligently with the pace of Sergio Aguero, who took the ball around Pepe Reina but was forced too far wide, and threatening again when Raul Garcia struck a 25-yard shot that had the Liverpool goalkeeper scrambling to his right to save.
It was the moment when Aquilani's Liverpool career came to life, some eight months after his £20m move from Roma, but there were still times when he looked an uneasy fit in this Liverpool team.
His failure to get to grips with Jose Antonio Reyes led to a counter-attack in which Liverpool could easily have been caught out, but, with Aguero well patrolled by Jamie Carragher and Agger, it was not easy to see an Atletico goal coming.
Liverpool seemed to be running out of steam, but Glen Johnson raised the noise levels inside Anfield by stepping forward from left-back, cutting inside and hitting a shot that De Gea saved with some discomfort. It was a threat, isolated in the second half, but Liverpool needed more.
A glance at the teamsheet did not inspire confidence among Liverpool's options from the bench, but Benitez, looking for his team to stretch the Atletico defence, turned to Nabil El Zhar, the 23-year-old Moroccan winger who has never come close to establishing himself in the first team at Anfield.
Liverpool needed to summon something from within and, five minutes into the extra half-hour, they found it. Gerrard won the ball on the edge of the penalty area and Lucas threaded a pass through to Benayoun, such an intelligent player, who had timed his run just right to beat the offside trap.
Benayoun beat the unconvincing De Gea with a low left-foot shot and suddenly Liverpool were dreaming of a trip to Hamburg.
But always this season there is a gut-wrenching twist in the tale for Liverpool and, when Reyes, the former Arsenal forward, crossed from the right wing, it seemed inevitable that Forlan, of all people, would sweep the ball home.
It was not the first time he had scored at Anfield -- he became a cult hero among United's supporters after doing so twice in 2002 -- but this time it really mattered.
And this time, even more than a home defeat by Alex Ferguson's team, it really really hurt for Liverpool. (© The Times, London)