Friday, April 23, 2010

Match Report: Atletico Madrid 1 - 0 Liverpool

Liverpool failed to gain any reward for their valiant efforts in making the long-haul trip to Madrid as a familiar foe gave Atletico victory in their Europa League semi-final first leg.

Former Manchester United striker Diego Forlan hit a scrappy winner in only the ninth minute but the tie is far from over and even without an away goal Rafael Benitez's side will be optimistic of overturning the result at Anfield next week.

The Reds missed their injured striker Fernando Torres almost as much as the former darling of the Vicente Calderon missed the chance to face his old club, having also been denied that opportunity in the Champions League last season because of more fitness problems.

Benitez had insisted the 1,200-mile journey by coach, train and eventually plane - after UEFA's insistence the match go ahead despite the volcanic ash cloud which grounded flights across Europe - had brought his squad closer together.

If only his defence had been tighter-knit in the ninth minute then they may not have conceded.

No one will ever really know whether their exertions in getting to the Spanish capital had an effect but it was a sloppy piece of marking which cost them.

Forlan became something of a cult hero among United fans with both goals in a 2-1 victory at Anfield in 2002, albeit assisted, it has to be said, by Reds goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek.

And it was he who returned to haunt the Merseysiders when Jose Manuel Jurado's cross from the left dropped over Jamie Carragher and picked him out on the edge of the six-yard area.

His first attempt at a header was reminiscent of those early United days when he earned the nickname "Diego Forlorn" because of his difficulty in scoring.

However, the Uruguayan is a better, more experienced - and even luckier - player now and as ball from his duffed header dropped right at his feet he poked it home off goalkeeper Jose Reina.

Had Yossi Benayoun enjoyed a similar slice of good fortune a minute later from Dirk Kuyt's cross his header would have nestled in the net instead of flying wide of the far post.

The Israeli beat Atletico goalkeeper David de Dea eight minutes later but again the luck was against him, this time by virtue of a wrong offside decision.

Kuyt's mis-hit shot bobbled into the penalty area where Benayoun slotted the ball home only to be denied by an erroneous flag, as television replays proved.

Still Liverpool came forward and Steven Gerrard should have done better moments later when Lucas Leiva put him through only for the captain to shoot left-footed into the side-netting when he should have least hit the target.

But Atletico's threat had not diminished and their neat triangles in the final third of the pitch often cut open the visitors' defence.

Even right-back Tomas Ujfalusi got in on the act, weaving into the penalty area before shooting into the side-netting five minutes before half-time.

Forlan fluffed another a good chance soon after the break when he was put through on the edge of the penalty area but it was Reina's brilliance in producing a one-handed save which denied one-time Liverpool target Simao from Ujfalusi's cross.

The goalkeeper came to his side's rescue again as he beat away Ujfalusi's long-range strike and Carragher cleared as Atletico regained the initiative.

But Liverpool's experience and proud history, this match seeing them become the first English club to play in 16 European semi-finals, ensured they made a fight of it and, more importantly, did not concede again.

Of those 16 last-four encounters they have lost only four overall and their record when playing semi-final second legs at home is seven victories and one draw.

That statistic alone shows the power of Anfield on European nights.

Time will only tell how much Liverpool's long-distance travails on train, coach and plane cost them.

But, with fourth place in the Barclays Premier League looking beyond them, anything other than victory next week is likely to bring their season to a premature end.

A Lonely Walk For Benitez

Steven Gerrard wants three or four. Fernando Torres four or five and Jamie Carragher reckons Liverpool need five or six new players of quality. Add them all together and you might have a more realistic number.

All managers aspire to a comfortable situation in which two players of relatively equal merit are fighting to start but when Rafa Benitez checked his squad on to the bus for the long haul to Madrid the reality was somewhat different.

A motley collection of young, old and bewildered players which cost about £230m to assemble now carry the fate of Liverpool at their feet.

The club has a big 'For Sale' sticker attached and everyone knows that the only way Liverpool can remain a force in Premier League and European football is via massive investment -- calculated at £1bn by some.

There was a time when a number like that was virtually incomprehensible but in our world, whoever buys Liverpool and spends that sort of money on the project is getting a bargain. Here in Ireland, we're spending many, many billions on nothing at all and we have a bitter, bitter understanding of the maths.

Everything about Liverpool at the moment is as shaky and hollow as an Irish bank. They have much in common, both burdened by unmanageable debt but still paying out huge salaries.

But the banks have us to bail them out. Benitez only has the players around him and for six months, the big earners haven't been near good enough.

Gerrard glares at the world through hooded eyebrows while Torres, the club's last great hope, took the long road to Spain for an operation which gives him a chance of playing some significant role in the World Cup for his country but leaves his club without a recognised striker.

Benitez looked sharp and efficient when he first arrived from Valencia six years ago and quickly established a reputation as a man who could say nothing at all with great courtesy and good humour.

But these days he often looks as if he could do with a shave and he says far too much badly. In fact, his demeanour became shifty once he began to cultivate face hair and opened up with both barrels on Alex Ferguson -- never a good plan unless you have substance to match the rhetoric.

It was a moment of arrogance on Benitez's part which he has never really recovered from. Up until that point in December 2009, Benitez was universally admired as an honourable man and a good manager working in difficult circumstances although there were conscientious objectors like Ronnie Whelan who believed that there was already too much evidence of bad judgement for comfort.

But from the moment he chose to redesign his image and emerged wild-eyed, red-faced and ready to trade verbal blows on an equal footing with Fergie, the tide turned among neutrals.

It turned, too, in the Premier League and Liverpool have been in effective decline ever since. The peak reached just before Christmas 2008 was as good as it's going to be for a long time.

Neutral football lovers understood the scale of Liverpool's problems long before the Kop did but Benitez's failings became wrapped up in supporters' dislike of Hicks and Gillett.

Benitez wrapped the popular vote around him and went into a boardroom battle with Rick Parry which he ultimately won.

It has proven to be a very empty victory indeed. With the only big lump of cash spent since Parry left, Benitez chose to invest heavily in Alberto Aquilani who, according to his manager, is too soft for English football.

Even Parry might have chosen better than that.

After a series of questionable and sometimes downright irrational transfer deals in and out of Anfield, Benitez flunked his first solo test. Nobody else to blame for Aquilani but the manager.

Thursday night’s Europa League assignment is nothing more than a distraction from the most important work being done by Liverpool at the moment. The urgent search for a buyer is all-important.

But Benitez will hope that success in a competition which was on nobody's list of targets when Liverpool kicked off the season back in August full of optimism and hunger, will serve him on two fronts.

If there is any truth in tales of a Chinese zillionaire ready to invest and there's a big bankroll at Anfield next season, Benitez would clearly fancy a go even if that would be a disaster for the club.

An unlikely fourth place and Champions League football would be ideal, but the Europa League sitting in the Anfield trophy room would at least give him chips to play with.

Speculation that there has already been communication between potential new owners and Benitez suggest he's in the game at least.

In fact, Benitez is now in a pretty good position all told. He will bank a fortune if Liverpool cancel his contract and by the looks of things, he has a decent fallback position at Juventus. Another trinket always helps in salary negotiations. And he could walk into another well paid job leaving an awful mess behind him.

Even with a big budget, a top quality new manager will struggle to build a squad capable of squaring up to Manchester United and Chelsea at Anfield.

Manchester City is now the benchmark for Liverpool and that can't be easy to admit for fans reared on Shankly, Paisley, Fagan and Dalglish or even the Istanbul generation.

Manchester United make new memories every season and for their fans, success never grows old, even if Alex Ferguson does and moves ever closer to the day when he will leave Old Trafford bereft and searching for some way to plug an even bigger hole than the one Matt Busby left when he finally retired.

It took 26 years for Manchester United to climb back to the top of the English game and into a dominant position. While they struggled, Liverpool etched new standards of brilliance on every trophy plate available.

Two decades have passed since Kenny Dalglish stepped down, over-burdened by the stress of life at Anfield and still grieving for those lost at Heysel and Hillsborough. And in that period, Ferguson has rewritten the history books and balanced the ledger with Liverpool.

That, ultimately, will be Benitez's unfortunate legacy when future generations look back at this period and Liverpool's involvement in the Europa League will hardly be mentioned.

Mascherano Driven By Desire For First Trophy At Reds

Javier Mascherano insists memories of past European disappointments will not be his driving force as he attempts to move a step closer to winning his first piece of silverware as a Liverpool player this evening.

Mascherano has yet to taste success with Liverpool since moving to Anfield in February 2007, although he has come agonisingly close on a couple of occasions -- especially in Europe.

He was part of the side that lost the 2007 Champions League final 2-1 to AC Milan, and also the following year when Liverpool were knocked out of the same competition at the semi-final stage after going down 4-3 on aggregate to Chelsea. To some, the pain of those losses could serve as an inspiration, but Mascherano admits he prefers to look forward than back.

Speaking ahead of Thursday night’s Europa League semi-final first leg against Atletico Madrid, the Argentina midfielder said: "I try not to think of the past. For me the present is best and I try to think in the present. We will try to get a good result against Atletico and get through to the final in Hamburg.

"Whenever you lose you always feel that it's not a good experience. (But) I try to take away the positives when we lose and we got to the final in 2007. We couldn't win but we were there and that's important. We will try to win against Atletico and not think about anything else."

Regarding his chase for silverware with the five-time European champions, Mascherano added: "Trophies are the main thing. I said this a few weeks ago. This is the biggest game of the season for us."

Liverpool, who warmed up for tonight's match with a 3-0 win over West Ham on Monday night, will be without star striker Fernando Torres after he underwent season-ending knee surgery at the weekend.

Atletico will also be without one of their key forwards with Sergio Aguero suspended, and on top of that the Spanish side are also struggling for form having lost four of their past five league games.

Looking ahead to the clash, Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez said: "My dream is that on Thursday night we can settle the tie, but I'm aware that the tie will be decided at Anfield. It's going to be a very difficult and complicated tie. Both teams will play with caution but they will also try to score goals."

Both Benitez and Mascherano were also asked about their futures during last night's pre-match press conference, but both insisted their thoughts were solely on tonight's encounter with Atletico.

Mancini Delays Torres Talk

Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini has admitted his admiration of Liverpool striker Fernando Torres, but has put off all transfer talk until end the of the season.

The world's richest club have been heavily linked with the Spain ace for several weeks and it is thought City could make a bid for the currently injured star once the season is over.

But while Mancini has admitted his admiration of the player, he believes all the top clubs in Europe would love to sign the striker.

And instead of transfer talk, the City boss is concentrating on securing UEFA Champions League football next term.

Mancini said: "Fernando Torres is a fantastic striker.

"But all the teams in Europe are interested in him.

"We must get the rest of the matches out of the way first, then we will decide about other players."

Mancini believes securing Champions League football is vital to attracting the top players to the mega-rich club, who also want to make a bid for the title next term.

He added: "All the top players want to play in the Champions League.

"Next year we want to be a team who wins the Premier League. To do that we need top players."

Mancini also confirmed defender Micah Richards could be involved in Saturday's encounter with Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium after a four-match absence with a knee injury.

The game will see a return to north London for ex-Arsenal striker Emmanuel Adebayor.

The forward made a controversial goal celebration when the two sides met at Eastlands earlier in the season and then landed himself with a three-match ban for raking his studs down the side of Robin van Persie's face in the same game.

But Mancini wants Adebayor to forget about want has gone on before and instead focus on helping his present club on Saturday.

The City boss added: "I remember that game because I watched it on TV.

"I don't know why it happened but it is important Emmanuel only concentrates on Manchester City on Saturday.

Liverpool Planning Shock Summer Move For Wolves Goalkeeper

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez is preparing a shock £2.5million bid for Wolves keeper Wayne Hennessey.

Benitez has targeted Wales international Hennessey for a surprise summer switch to Anfield as back-up to No. 1 Pepe Reina.

Hennessey has lost his place to Marcus Hahnemann at Molineux and not played in the Premier League since Wolves" 4-0 thrashing against Chelsea in November.

But Benitez believes the 23-year-old will be an ideal No. 2 to Reina and is ready to make his move at the end of the season.

Hennessey played a key role in Wolves' promotion to the Premier League and his form has alerted both Arsenal and Aston Villa in the past.

But he struggled in the top flight earlier this season and has been on the bench for most of the campaign after being replaced by summer signing Hahnemann.

Wolves boss Mick McCarthy is already preparing to splash the cash after warning he will need major funds for next season.

McCarthy has virtually guaranteed survival after only one defeat in the last seven games and will end the need for nail-biting with a win over Blackburn this weekend.

But he insists Wolves desperately need to strengthen in the summer and wants a substantial transfer kitty for the next transfer window.

He said: "We'd have to try and improve what we've got if we stay up. If we don't, then we're just standing still.

"If we stay in the Premier League, then we'll have to try and improve the squad again. If you stay up, players might have a bit more faith we can do it again.

"If we stay up, there's maybe the chance of spending more money and bringing better players in. The players here are doing great at the minute but it's all about improving the squad."

Rafael Benitez Would Bring Fernando Torres & Sammy Lee To Juventus From Liverpool

Rafael Benitez would make radical changes at Juventus should he join them from Liverpool in the summer, reports Il Corriere dello Sport.

The Italian paper forecasts wholesale changes and exits for a number of top players to accommodate Benitez's plan for a 4-4-2 system, and the arrival of Fernando Torres.

David Trezeguet, Amauri, Sebastian Giovinco and Vincenzo Iaquinta are likely to vacate the attacking department. The only certainty to remain is Alessandro Del Piero, the club legend whose contract expires at the end of 2011.

Reports this week claimed Benitez has been promised an €80 million transfer kitty. And, he will use this to buy two top-class wingers to suit his 4-4-2, and bring Torres with him from Liverpool.

Sampdoria striker Giampaolo Pazzini and Wolfsburg man Edin Dzeko are also targets should the Reds stand in the way of progress for the Spanish international.

Meanwhile, Tuttosport are reporting that John Elkann, heir to the Juventus throne, wants Benitez at all costs, and that Benitez has convinced his assistant coach Sammy Lee to follow him to Turin.

Ian Rush Expects Rafael Benitez To Stay At Anfield

Liverpool legend Ian Rush believes Rafael Benítez will still be in charge at Anfield next season, despite the Reds’ imminent failure to qualify for the Champions League, and reports linking the Spaniard with a summer move to Italian giants Juventus.

Speaking exclusively to UK, Rush, whose 346 goals make him the Reds’ all-time top scorer, said that last week’s announcement that co-owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks have officially put the club up for sale was good news for Liverpool supporters, and that he expects Benitez to lead the way forward next season.

“I don’t think that Benitez’s future will be a massive issue personally,” he said, “Of course what needs to happen, for peace of mind as much as anything else, is that the situation gets sorted sooner rather than later.

“All we know at the moment is that the club is up for sale, and that is official. What we must hope for is that any buyer wants, and does, what is best for Liverpool.

“It is positive news; it is what the fans want, a bit of light at the end of the tunnel after a difficult period.”

Gillett and Hicks have drafted in British Airways chief Martin Broughton, who will act as an interim chairman to oversee the sale of the club, and Rush believes that the money made available to Benitez for strengthening the squad will be the key this summer. But he expressed concern over the need to settle the situation quickly.

“I think Benitez will be there as manager,” he said, “But then the big issue is how much he will have to spend in the summer. That’s why the situation must be sorted, and the sooner the better."

Yet whilst the off-field issues have dominated the headlines for all the wrong reasons this season, on the pitch Liverpool have fared little better. Benitez’s side look set to miss out on a Champions League place next season, sitting well behind both Tottenham and Manchester City in the race for a top-four finish, and Rush believes catching those teams, with just four league games remaining, will be very difficult.

“I think they still have a small chance of getting fourth,” he said. “Tottenham and Manchester City can drop points in tough games, but of course it is going to be very difficult.

“I think the game with Fulham [a 0-0 draw at Anfield last week] was crucial, Liverpool needed to win every game until the end of the season – and most people thought the big one would be against Chelsea – so those dropped points have cost them.”

Despite their disappointing domestic campaign, however, Liverpool find themselves in with a chance of landing a trophy come May. They take on Spanish side Atletico Madrid in the Europa League semi-finals on Thursday night, and Rush believes the Reds’ quarter-final performance, in which they swept aside a much-fancied Benfica side 5-3 on aggregate, makes them favourites for the competition.

“I definitely think they can go all the way in the Europa League,” he revealed, “I thought before the quarter-final that whoever won out of Liverpool and Benfica would be favourites, and that hasn’t changed. I do believe Liverpool can go on and win it.

“It may not be the Champions League, but it’s still a trophy to win, and for the fans; they want to see Steven Gerrard lifting that trophy in Hamburg.”

Rush’s record at Anfield during his two spells at the club between 1980 and 1997 has guaranteed him a place amongst the pantheon of Liverpool legends, and the Welshman believes that the current owner of the Reds’ number 9 shirt, Fernando Torres, has what it takes to join him on that illustrious list, despite the series of injuries which have curtailed his campaign.

“Torres, of course, has been fantastic,” he said, “His scoring record and ratio is incredible, and of course when he doesn’t play he is a big miss. It really notices because he is such a special player, so it is a huge shame to see him suffer any injury."

Atletico Madrid's Europa League Clash With Liverpool Will Be Decided In Second Leg - Quique Sanchez Flores

Atletico Madrid lock horns with Liverpool on Thursday evening in the first leg of their Europa League semi-final and head coach Quique Sanchez Flores has stated that he doesn't expect the tie to be decided until the second leg.

"I don’t see any result possible that will give us piece of mind for the return at Anfield. Playing at Anfield is always uncomfortable, it doesn’t matter what result you get in the first leg," said Sanchez Flores, according to the Liverpool Echo.

"Liverpool are a team that are capable of bouncing back and having great games. The important thing for us will be the collective mindset that we have, as this competition always gives very close scorelines in the first leg.

"I don’t think that the tie, which is 50-50, will be decided at the Vicente Calderon. What I’m sure about is that we will have to play at a very high level. The fundamental difference needs to be our mentality, the way we go out in matches, the intensity, the concentration...we have to recover the way we’ve been playing in this competition, which has got us to the semi-finals."

Rafael Benítez Feels Stars’ Trek Has Built Right Spirit For Final Bid

At the start of the season the prospect of taking part in a European odyssey that featured a springtime game in Madrid would have been a cause for great excitement at Anfield.

It says everything about Liverpool’s dysfunctional and eventful campaign that they have arrived in the Spanish capital at almost the right time of year, but in a competition that they had hoped to avoid.

Next month’s Champions League final at the Bernabéu may have been Liverpool’s original target, but indifferent form in that competition means that they are slumming it in the Europa League and preparing to take on Atlético Madrid at the Vicente Calderón in the first leg of their semi-final on Thursday night.

Having arrived in his home town via London, Paris and Bordeaux, Rafael Benítez is keen to turn negatives into a positive. “It [the long journey] has been good because you can see how everyone has been sticking together,” the Liverpool manager said.

“Sometimes the positive thing from something like this is that people have a better team experience. If you are on a plane for just one or two hours, everyone is just watching the film, on their PlayStations or whatever, now they have been talking more.

“It has been difficult for everyone because they will arrive tired but you could see them all talking to each other in different groups and changing them around as well rather than simply sticking in their normal ones.”

Benítez, who is likely to play David Ngog in attack in the absence of the injured Fernando Torres, dismissed suggestions that even Barcelona had been deprived of their usual vim and vigour by the coach journey that preceded Wednesday’s 3-1 defeat away to Inter Milan in the Champions League semi-final, first leg.

His positive stance and refusal to accept that performance levels will suffer because of Liverpool’s unusual travel schedule are clearly an attempt to remove an excuse for failure. Rather, he will use his team-talk on Thursday night to remind his side that having given so much just to get to Madrid, it would be a waste if they departed the city without having given themselves a good chance of reaching their third European final in the past six seasons.

“When you get to this stage of the competition, it is easy to motivate the players,” he said. “They know they are so close to the final and have to produce their maximum to win the game. It will be tough, though. Atlético normally play with pace and ability. People talk about their weakness in defence but that is because they are good in attack and are sometimes exposed at the back. If they can keep the balance, they will be very dangerous.

“In the Vicente Calderón everything will be different. Atlético will be a very difficult opposition. The stadium is very good for them, especially if they start the game well. If they don’t, then the fans can get on top of them so maybe that’s something we can manage.

“It is important to have an opportunity to win silverware and it will have been a difficult journey for the fans who manage to get to the game, so we have to do our best for them.”