Liverpool 2 Atletico Madrid 1 (2-2 on agg, Atletico Madrid win on away goals)
Quique Sanchez Flores is used to succeeding Rafael Benitez. He succeeded Benitez as a coach in the Real Madrid youth setup. He succeeded Benitez in the home dugout at the Mestalla. Finally, he succeeded at Benitez’s expense and steered Atletico Madrid to the Europa League final.
24 hours after Inter’s defensive masterclass in the cauldron of the Camp Nou, Atletico were attempting to shield an even more fragile lead at an expectant Anfield. Los Colchoneros, the mattress-makers, have fittingly become known for their tendency to fall asleep at the back in recent years though. They are certainly no Inter and Quique is no Jose. That old chestnut about attack being the best form of defence was ready made for application to Atletico.
So to get to the half hour mark on Merseyside without concession was a major achievement for the visitors, regardless of the absence of their former hero Fernando Torres on the opposing side. They barely got through the first fifteen seconds after Dirk Kuyt flicked the ball on for Yossi Benayoun to shoot straight at rookie keeper David De Gea. The Atletico keeper was born six months after Liverpool last celebrated a league title.
He should have been beaten after 25 minutes when some bright passing from the home side produced an opening down the right for makeshift full-back Javier Mascherano. The Argentine had plenty of time to measure his inch-perfect cross which was diverted over from close range by the advancing Kuyt. Five minutes later, the ball did finally pass De Gea courtesy of Agger’s firm header from a Steven Gerrard free kick but the Dane’s celebrations were cut short by a correct offside decision.
The away side had their chances in a fast-paced first half. Sergio Aguero rounded Jose Reina only to reach an angle too acute to profit and there were plenty of forward raids from the lively Simao and Jose Antonio Reyes. At the other end, though, the infamous Atletico rearguard looked in danger under frequent fire from the Liverpool right, which soon proved the source of the opening goal.
Benayoun was allowed to turn easily away from Antonio Lopez and drive into space in front of the Kop, which burst into celebration when Alberto Aquilani met the Israeli’s cross with a decisive low shot to De Gea’s left. The £20million Italian may have suffered a slow start to his Liverpool career but he provided an explosive finish to the first half with an important strike.
Atletico were making their second Anfield appearance of the season, having triumphed 2-1 in a friendly way back in August. That day, Aguero and his sidekick Diego Forlan were unplayable and each scored in the first half. Fast forward to the dying embers of a poor season and Atletico’s hopes of a Europa League final appearance rested firmly on the South American duo’s shoulders, but no sight of goal was forthcoming.
The second period was nervy. Both teams have greatly underachieved in their respective leagues and both tumbled out of the group stages of the European Cup to land in the competition marked second best. With just three minutes remaining, Forlan’s chance arrived. Simao skipped away from two red shirts in the centre circle before looping a ball over the Liverpool defence for the Uruguayan. It fell quickly and awkwardly to his unfavoured right foot, but all he needed to produce was a touch to gain control and be presented with an opportunity to beat Reina for the winning goal. It didn’t come and the agony was prolonged into extra time.
Between the final whistle and the kickoff for 30 further minutes at Anfield, one thing at least was decided. On the banks of the River Thames, Hamburg were beaten and Roy Hodgson’s Fulham were confirmed as the first of the two Europa League finalists. Fulham, who earlier knocked the holders Shakhtar Donetsk out of the competition, had now accounted for the hosts too. The final will take place at Hamburg’s Nordbank Arena in mid-May.
Perhaps it was this news that energised Liverpool. Perhaps the prospect of facing Fulham for a major trophy breathed life into them. And perhaps Benayoun’s well struck left-footed goal came too early. Liverpool gained the lead for the first time in the tie and it rattled them. Atletico responded by displaying their attacking flair and fighting back with style.
If a ferocious Reyes shot was not warning enough, then the home supporters were surely concerned by a beautifully-struck effort from substitute Jose Manuel Jurado that curled inches wide of Reina’s post. Before the interval in extra time, Atletico had regained the advantage with a fine away goal. Reyes won the ball under a weak challenge from Glen Johnson, fulfilling an unfamiliar role at left-back, before firing across the face of goal for ex-Manchester United man Forlan to find the roof of the Kop end net.
Towards the end of a tiring season, with Liverpool’s squad stretched to breaking point, the men thrown on by a desperate Benitez in place of Aquilani, Mascherano and Benayoun were not as familiar. Nabil el Zhar, David Degen and Daniel Pacheco were charged with getting Liverpool to Germany. Simao should have ended the dream with ten minutes remaining but missed the target when a simple cut back to Aguero would have finished the game.
In the final minutes, there were some unlikely sights. Reina took a throw-in. Aguero failed to capitalise on another opportunity to kill Liverpool off. Most surprisingly of all, Atletico held firm and a much-maligned backline pulled Los Colchoneros through to the final.