Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Match Report: LiverpooL 1 - 1 Atletico Madrid

Steven Gerrard drove home a controversial penalty four minutes into injury time to salvage a dramatic Champions League point for Liverpool.

Atletico will believe they were robbed of a confirmed place in the last 16 by referee Martin Hansson's hotly disputed penalty award for a debatable foul on Gerrard by Mariano Pernia.

The visitors had led from the 37th minute following a cleverly constructed Maxi Rodriguez goal and frustrated Liverpool at every turn.

But Gerrard never gave up and his penalty eventually spared Liverpool's blushes and both sides should advance to the last 16.

Fernando Torres failed to even make the bench, missing his sixth match since picking up a hamstring injury while on international duty last month.

He cut a disconsolate figure in the directors' box having also missed the chance to play at his former club a fortnight ago.

From that match Liverpool left out Andrea Dossena and Yossi Benayoun, bringing in Fabio Aurelio and Dirk Kuyt, while Luis Garcia and Florent Sinama-Pongolle were also left on the bench by Atletico boss Javier Aguirre.

Liverpool started with pace and desire and could have scored in the first minute when Kuyt's close-range effort was grabbed by Leo Franco.

Another chance went begging when Xabi Alonso's stunning 40-yard pass found Robbie Keane arriving at pace on the edge of the box, but the Irishman's fierce drive thudded into the side netting.

Madrid were not slow to hit back and should have scored four minutes later. Pernia got to the byline and pulled back a cross but Simao hooked it over the bar from six yards.

Two more Liverpool chances then went begging, Riera's touch into the box almost set-up Gerrard as he surged into the area and Keane denied by Franco when he tried to round the Argentinian goalkeeper.

Atletico were also producing some quality football and scored an outstanding goal after 37 minutes.

Antonio Lopez broke down the right, taking a long pass with a superb first touch to confound Daniel Agger.

His pass into the box found Rodriguez moving into space away from Jamie Carragher before firing a shot across Jose Reina and inside the far post.

Atletico had looked calm and controlled in the first period, but came out for the second half having to defend in front of the Kop.

Liverpool were instantly at their throats. After just 60 seconds Luis Perea flicked the ball away from Keane with his right hand in the box, but Swedish referee Martin Hansson ignored the appeals.

Agger saw a header drop onto the roof of the net as Liverpool cranked up the pressure.

Ryan Babel was now on for Riera, Liverpool almost camped in Madrid's half with Atletico looking for the break to settle it. Surging runs from Simao and Diego Forlan emphasised the dangers.

Liverpool almost grabbed the equaliser after 70 minutes when Arbeloa and Keane combined to set up Gerrard, but the captain's shot just cleared the angle.

Maniche was booked for a foul on Arbeloa before Liverpool sent on David N'Gog for Keane. But at the same time Madrid sent on their brilliant Argentinian striker, Sergio Aguero in place of Forlan.

Lucas replaced Javier Mascherano but the danger of a devastating Madrid break was there every time Aguero got the ball.

N'Gog's control let him down a couple of times, but he forced Franco into a near-post save that produced a corner from which Agger saw another header go agonisingly wide.

Carragher got in on the act with a run and drive that Franco touched over, before a minute from time Luis Garcia came on, to a great reception, for Simao.

Still Liverpool looked unable to break through, until the fourth minute of injury time when Gerrard went down in the box under an aerial challenge from Pernia.

He made no contact with the ball but it was a debatable decision and Gerrard picked himself up to drive home the penalty and ruin Madrid's night.

Luis Perea, Aguero and John Heitinga were all booked in the uproar that followed but Liverpool had their fortunate draw.

Liverpool Join Barcelona In Chase For Brazil Under 23 Striker Keirrison

Liverpool have been told they will not be able to pick up 19-year-old Brazilian striker Keirrison on the cheap.

Valencia and Barcelona have been tracking the teenager for a year and reports last week said Liverpool had entered the race to sign him.

His contract with Coritiba runs out in April and his representatives are thought to have offered Keirrison to a number of clubs.

But the player has now signed a contract with sports marketing firm Traffic, who will demand a hefty fee to transfer the player to Europe.

In the kind of carve-up typical in South America, Traffic have reached an agreement to 'own' 80 per cent of the player for the next four years, with the final 20 per cent yet to be secured from Coritiba.

Keirrison's new owners have close links with Palmeiras and hope to transfer him to the Sao Paulo club in time for the Paulista state championship in January - if they can agree a fee with Coritiba for the early release from his contract.

However, the move to third-party ownership could mean the 6ft striker is transfered to Europe soon enough as his new paymasters look to maximise the return on their investment.

Keirrison has scored 67 times in 101 games for Coritiba, helping them get promoted to Brazil's top division last season.

He has been called up to the Brazil Under 23 squad once but has yet to play international football and securing a work permit for a move to England may be difficult, unless he can prove European ancestry.

Potential Liverpool Buyers Mysteriously Lose Interest

Reports in the English media suggest that Liverpool's American owners recently came close to selling the club, until the potential buyers walked away with no explanation.

The ongoing ownership saga at Liverpool has had a new twist added to it with reports that suggest a Middle-Eastern investment group almost bought the club two weeks ago and then dropped its interest in strange circumstances.

Tom Hicks and George Gillet Jnr., the Anfield club's American owners, still deny that the club is up for sale. However, The Times reports that an Arab group, unrelated to Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, had made a firm offer for the club but then walked away with a deal imminent.

Interest had apparently been shown by a consortium from Kuwait, though it is not known whether this is the same group that walked away from the recent deal. Sheikh Mohammed, now operating separately from Dubai International Capital group rather than through them, also still has a £500 million offer on the table.

The American tycoons are expected to issue another public denial today that they want to sell the club, but it is an open secret in football financial circles that they are desperate to find a buyer after a series of high-profile and embarrassing incidents, such as the failure to provide a new stadium for the club in Stanley Park.

That particular project was quashed due to an inability by the Americans to raise funds.

With the club heavily in debt and looking unlikely to be able to restructure its £350 million debt to the Royal Bank of Scotland and Wachovia banks due to the Credit Crunch, Hicks and Gillett would like to sell sooner rather than later.

However, with the world in the grip of an economic recession, that process may not be as straightforward as they would like.

Liverpool's Position Delights Rafa

Rafa Benitez says both Liverpool and Atletico Madrid are now in a "fantastic position" to earn qualification for the Champions League last 16.

The sides drew 1-1 in controversial circumstances in a group D clash at Anfield on Tuesday night.

Liverpool equalised with a Steven Gerrard penalty in the fourth minute of injury time to cancel out a first-half goal from Maxi Rodriguez.

Madrid were furious with Swedish referee Martin Hansson for his spot-kick decision, but a point each now leaves both clubs one win away from qualification.

It could all now be decided on November 26 when Liverpool face Marseille while Madrid host PSV Eindhoven.

Had Madrid held on to their 1-0 lead on Tuesday night, they would already be in the knock-out stage by virtue of the French side's victory over PSV.

Benitez said: "Madrid and us are in a fantastic position now to both qualify, we both need one more win.

"We are disappointed we did not win. But we have one more point and that is positive.

"Madrid had one chance and scored, and in the second half they were dangerous on the counter-attack and at times they could have grabbed another goal.

"But we had so many chances, we should have won the match. Madrid were organised, but only had that one chance."

But the Anfield boss insisted that referee Hansson was right to award an injury-time penalty for a foul on Gerrard that enraged the Spanish team.

Gerrard was felled in an aerial collision with Mariano Pernia, before rapping home the spot-kick himself.

Gerrard himself conceded: "I was not sure it was a penalty, I got to the ball first, and I suppose if that was outside the area it would be a free-kick."

Benitez agreed, saying: "It was disappointing that it all came down to having to score from a penalty.

"There was a clear handball in the second-half that was not given, and had that offence against Steven taken place in the middle of the pitch it would have been a free-kick, so it was a penalty."

He added: "The key for us was not to lose in such a tight match. We are still right up at the top with them, we can both qualify."

Benitez also revealed that Fernando Torres had not been confident enough in his own fitness to be in the squad for the match.

He has now missed six games with a hamstring injury, and Benitez said: "Torres was very close, but he did not have the confidence to play so it was not worth the risk."

Atletico Madrid boss Javier Aguirre amazingly refused to attack referee Hansson for the late penalty decision that cost his side victory.

He said: "I was a long way from the incident, so I could not see properly. But how things change in one minute of football. We were in the last 16 and Marseille had beaten PSV, and then we concede a penalty and it is snatched away, but we just have to keep on fighting.

"But I was still very happy with team effort and the way we worked as a group, maybe we did not get the win we deserved.

"One point will help us, and we still believe we can to the group, we still need points to qualify with one home and one away game but we believe we can still finish on top of the group."

Rafa: We Deserved The Penalty

Rafael Benitez, the Liverpool manager, has expressed his disappointment with last night's draw against Atletico Madrid, although he did not complain about the dubious decision which gifted his side a late equaliser.

The Reds fell behind to an excellent first-half strike from Maxi Rodriguez and, despite their total dominance of possession, as the minutes ticked by it looked as though there would be no Kop comeback.

Then Steven Gerrard popped up - or rather, fell down. The skipper charged into the box to contest a bouncing ball and found himself on the floor after an innocuous brush with Mariano Pernia. However, much to the Atleti players' disgust, a penalty was awarded and Gerrard duly dispatched it to level the scores deep in stoppage time.

Benitez could not hide his annoyance at having to rely on a controversial call from the referee to earn a point at home, but he pointed out that his men suffered at the official's hands as well.

"We are disappointed because we needed the penalty at the end, but I think we deserved to score before that," the Spaniard told Liverpool's website.

"I thought we should have had a penalty earlier in the second half. It was clear they handled in the area."

Television replays suggested that Luis Amaranto Perea, Atletico's Colombian defender, did indeed flick the ball with his hand in his own penalty area. But neither Martin Hansson nor his assistants spotted it.

"If that would have been in the middle of the pitch then it would have been a free-kick, but it happened in the box and it was not a penalty," Benitez added.

Liverpool pressed their visitors deep throughout the second half, controlling the play through Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano in midfield while Steven Gerrard, Robbie Keane and Dirk Kuyt put together some lovely attacking moves which lacked only a clinical finish.

"We had some good chances, but they had one chance in the first half and scored from it," Benitez said.

"But it was really important for us not to lose today. OK, a win would be much better, but getting the point was very important because we are still near the top of the group.

"You could see that we were attacking and attacking, but they were very good in the counter-attack and had a lot of quality."

Both Atletico and Liverpool have tallied eight points from four Champions League games, with the Spaniards sitting top of Group D through goal difference.

Steven Gerrard Admits To Being Unsure About Penalty

Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard admitted he had doubts over whether his injury-time penalty was a spot-kick but he was grateful for the chance to make it 1-1 in their Champions League clash at home to Atletico Madrid.

The England midfielder was harshly ruled to have been fouled by Mariano Pernia as they challenged for an aerial ball and he picked himself up to fire home.

Liverpool had dominated the game but had trailed Maxi Rodriguez’s 37th-minute opener, which made the equaliser all the more important.

“I think we controlled the game but first half we weren’t good enough,” said Gerrard.

“We raised it at half-time and it finally came in injury time. I’m not sure it was a penalty. I got their first and I think if that is outside the area you get a free-kick.”

The penalty award sparked huge protests from Atletico and Gerrard admitted he had some sympathy.

“If it happened at the other end we would be livid. That’s football. It’s a point and we move on,” Gerrard told ITV1, stressing it was important to produce a performance after losing their unbeaten record against Tottenham at the weekend.

“It is important because we have got a point. Good teams don’t usually lose two in a row and we showed a lot of character.”

Manager Rafael Benitez, who felt his side should have had at least one penalty earlier in the match for handball, was more sure of the penalty award.

“I think so, watching the replay,” was his assessment.

“I think it was the linesman who has given the penalty but it is better not to talk too much about the referee.”

Steven Gerrard Hails Liverpool FC’s Never-Say-Die Attitude

STEVEN GERRARD hailed Liverpool’s never-say-die attitude after his injury time penalty rescued a point against Atletico Madrid last night.

The captain was brought down by Luis Perea and converted the spot-kick just as Liverpool were poised for their first home defeat of the campaign.

But once again they produced another late fightback to leave them joint top with the Spaniards of their Champions League group and still in prime position to qualify for the knockout stages.

PSV Eindhoven failed to apply pressure on the Anfield outfit as they lost to Marseille and Gerrard said: “That was a big point for us. We showed a lot of character and that keeps us joint top of the group so now we move on. We controlled the game in the first half but credit to Atletico. We had to raise our again, which we did, and we controlled them in the second half so it was a deserved point.”

Swedish referee Martin Hansson had to consult his assistant in awarding the decisive penalty as he took his time over the decision.

It prompted furious protests from Atletico’s players, who were on the verge of a win that would have secured their place in the last 16 with two group games still to go.

But Gerrard said: “I got to the ball first and was caught. If that happened outside the area it would definitely have been a free-kick so a penalty was the right decision.”

Manager Rafael Benitez agreed, especially as Perea got away with a handball early in the second half. He said: “That was a clear penalty so we deserved the break to get us back in the game.

“We have that fighting spirit and it’s important that we keep it going, because that is what gets you results.

“We have come from behind five or six times this season but we do have problems. You still have to take your chances because at the weekend we missed some as well, and that is often the difference.”

Benitez also admitted his disappointment that his team still has work to do to make the next round when they could have assured their qualification with a win in either of their two games with Atletico.

Simao denied them victory in Madrid with a late equaliser two weeks ago and Maxi Rodriguez stalled their progress when he struck in the first half last night. Benitez added: “We have to be disappointed because we talked before about winning the game and how important that would be for us. But we have one more point than we had before we started so that is also positive.

“Atletico and ourselves are still in a fantastic position.”

Benitez revealed that Fernando Torres was close to making his comeback after a lay-off with hamstring injury.

However, he decided not to risk including the Spanish striker in the squad, but is confident he can be fit in time for the visit of West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League on Saturday.

Atletico Madrid manager Javier Aguirre refused to attack referee Hansson for the late penalty decision which cost his side victory.

He said: “I was a long way from the incident so I could not see properly. But how things change in one minute of football.

“We were in the last 16 and Marseille had beaten PSV, and then we concede a penalty and it is snatched away, but we just have to keep on fighting.

“But I was still very happy with the team effort and the way we worked as a group, maybe we did not get the win we deserved.

“But one point will help us, we have regained great self-esteem, we are recovering from damaging defeats in our league form and this was still an excellent performance.”

Proof That Liverpool Need The Fernando Torres Spark

WHEN the opposing supporters are sporting your name and number on their shirts and they’re as disappointed as their rival fans at your absence, you know you’ve made it.

And the fact that Fernando Torres failed to make last night’s reunion with his former employers was as big a blow to expectation and anticipation as the failure of Diego Maradona to grace Anfield with his presence.

Torres is indeed a big miss. For both the travelling hordes who idolised him for so many years and those who have inherited that hero-worship.

The key difference is, Liverpool’s anguish over his absence goes way beyond last night. The reason Liverpool were so keen to get qualification sewn up was so they could keep key players fresh for resuming their title challenge.

In fact, the only reason there was so much at stake last night was because a lack of a clinical and ruthless finisher cost them victory in Madrid two weeks ago.

It also cost them their unbeaten league record at the weekend, when for most of the game they made Spurs look like the bottom-of-the-table side they are and inexplicably failed to cast them further adrift.

With Torres around, it’s safe to say that wouldn’t have happened – and they might not have had to rely on an injury-time penalty to rescue a point last night either.

When the 24-year-old limped out of Spain’s game with Belgium last month, his club wasn’t just losing its star striker but a star striker bang in form.

His hot streak – that had yielded four goals from his last two Premier League – was frustratingly suspended in mid-air. The fact Liverpool’s ambitions haven’t yet suffered a similar fate since is testament to the players Benitez has at his disposal. They are still well placed in the league and should still sail through to the knockout stages if the evidence of earlier meetings with Marseille and PSV Eindhoven is anything to go by.

But this can’t go on for much longer, even if Liverpool’s run of games over the next month looks more like a Christmas list than a fixture list.

Last night’s struggles to break Atletico down weren’t confined to having nobody in the six-yard area to tap into an open goal. It was the lack of someone with the ability to make something happen out of nothing when it’s all as flat as a dud firework.

The early stages of last night’s encounter were just that, with the visitors diligently sticking to their defensive duties, sitting back and waiting for the counter-attacks to present themselves.

It worked to perfection when right-back Antonio Lopez’s sublime control led to Maxi Rodriguez’s opening goal and in terms of the tactical pattern of the game that only made Liverpool’s task of breaking their opponents down even harder.

Robbie Keane, as he did in the first game, perhaps best summed up the cutting edge missing in the absence of Torres when he found himself clean through on goalkeeper Franco but, as he did a fortnight ago, opted for the over-elaborate when just a straightforward blast at goal would have done.

The chronic lack of invention was such that many in the Kop must have wished they were cheering Luis Garcia’s touchline warm-up in anticipation of him entering the fray in a red shirt rather than a blue one.

His impact on European nights has clearly not been forgotten and it could certainly have come in useful on this particular one.

But it’s Torres’s return that is really longed for, which is little wonder given that Daniel Agger looked the most likely outlet for an equaliser for much of the second half.

His comeback is now more than a week overdue based on the original prognosis but it is worth remembering there have been times during his spell on the sidelines when the message from his team-mates has appeared to be: “Take your time, there’s no rush.”

Dirk Kuyt filled the void admirably with his double strike Wigan, while the whole team did likewise with their compelling performance at Stamford Bridge.

But the Dutchman can’t be expected to sustain the kind of strike rate that Torres has delivered since bursting on to the English football scene and it’s clear Benitez’s squad can’t sustain a successful campaign while he’s spending games closer to his girlfriend than his fellow strikers.

Although one of the biggest problems now is that there aren’t too many of them about. David Ngog is one for the future rather than the current unforgiving deep end of a vital Champions League game.

In the final analysis of it, defeat may have been avoided. But nobody can swerve the fact that the extra rehabilitation time that has denied Torres a reunion with his old pals had better start coming to fruition.

Because right now a reunion with his current team-mates is far more urgent.

Maradona Plans To Make Liverpool's Mascherano His New Captain

Diego Maradona wasted little time putting his stamp on the Argentina national team, confirming he wants Liverpool midfielder Javier Mascherano to be his new skipper.

Maradona, 48, made the announcement just hours after he was formally confirmed as Argentina coach, succeeding Alfio Basile who stood down on October 16.

Maradona's first game in charge will be against Scotland at Hampden Park on November 19, and the new man has in the main stayed loyal to the group of players assembled under Basile.

However, two high-profile players did miss out on a place in Maradona's inaugural 20-man selection, with Internazionale midfielder Esteban Cambiasso and Getafe goalkeeper Roberto Abbondanzieri failing to get the nod.

Maradona's wish to make Mascherano his captain appears to be his strongest statement of intent, with the combative 24-year-old set to wrest the armband from the vastly experienced Javier Zanetti.

Mascherano last week said he did not have the charisma to be captain of his country, but Maradona said: "I want Mascherano to be my captain because I believe he is the Argentinian player who is closest to the idea I have about the Argentinian shirt - sweat for it, sacrifice for it, being a professional, being close to the team-mate.

'I will convince him. He will be my captain.'

Star playmaker Lionel Messi has not been called up due to an agreement between the Argentinian Football Association and Barcelona president Joan Laporta, after the Spanish giants released him to play the Olympic Games in Beijing earlier this year.

'Messi is not in the list out of respect to Barcelona,' Maradona continued.

'When we met [AFA president Julio] Grondona, the verbal agreement was already set.

'Laporta was a gentleman by letting him play the Olympic Games so we decided to let him stay in Barcelona for this match. If Barcelona finally let him play, he will be included in the list.'

Maradona added that he will not be taking the friendly against the Scots lightly.

'In my national team, there are no friendly matches,' he insisted. 'They are international games and we must defend the shirt.'

Mascherano will be joined in Maradona's first squad by Newcastle pair Fabricio Coloccini and Jonas Gutierrez and Manchester United forward Carlos Tevez.