Liverpool 2 Atletico Madrid 1 (Agg 2-2, Atletico win on away goals rule): Long and winding road ends in defeat
SO Liverpool’s attempts to follow in the footsteps of The Beatles on the route to success and glory in Hamburg faltered at the final hurdle.
Now the questions will be asked whether Rafael Benitez has reached the end of his long and winding road as Anfield manager.
If the Spaniard was still waiting on reassurances over his long-term future earlier this week, then he received little encouragement on the field last night as hopes of a Europa League final appearance were dashed by Atletico Madrid.
On an agonising evening at Anfield, Liverpool fought back from a first-leg deficit and into a position to seal an all-English final against Fulham before the May 12 appointment was snatched from their grasp.
Just when the suffering home support thought their team’s season couldn’t get any worse, along came the nightmare scenario of former Manchester United striker Diego Forlan heading the goal in front of the Kop that sent Benitez’s side tumbling out.
Forlan’s strike at the Vicente Calderon seven days earlier had been cancelled out by a 44th-minute Alberto Aquilani strike that sent the game into an extra-time period in which Yossi Benayoun put Liverpool ahead on aggregate on 95 minutes.
But when Forlan nodded home a Jose Antonio Reyes cross eight minutes later it meant Atletico were through on away goals, leaving Liverpool without a trophy for a fourth year and Benitez facing yet more questions over his immediate future.
This has been his annus horibilis at Anfield, a season in which just about everything that possibly could go wrong has gone wrong: key players injured or out of form, no fresh investment and even beachballs conspiring against the Spaniard.
Yet Benitez must take his share of the blame for a campaign of unrelentingly chronic underachievement.
Last night, the Spaniard picked a starting line-up that appeared an attempt to accommodate his strongest 11 available players.
It backfired. While Aquilani benefited with another improved performance and a well-taken goal, it came at the expense of too many other players, Steven Gerrard restricted in a defensive midfield role, Javier Mascherano reined in at right-back and Glen Johnson’s failings at left-back ultimately exposed in the most devastating fashion.
Let’s be honest, Atletico are not a great team. They have reached the final having won just two of their 14 European games this season and progressed on away goals in the last three rounds.
But then neither Lyon nor Fiorentina were particularly impressive, yet they too got the better of Benitez on his preferred European stage.
So what does that say about Liverpool? Simply, they are not good enough, beaten too many times by too many average teams.
The lack of depth to the squad was painfully evident last night by the Anfield manager turning to Nabil El Zhar, Philipp Degen and young Dani Pacheco in an effort to change the game late on. Not the most inspiring bench.
So much for the omens. On the three previous occasions Liverpool had gone into a European semi-final second leg at Anfield with a one-goal deficit, they reached the final.
The first half had gone to plan with Aquilani’s opener a minute before the break.
A quick throw by Mascherano down the right wing caught Reyes napping and found Benayoun, whose cutback from the byline, while possibly intended for Kuyt, fell invitingly for Aquilani to meet just inside the area with a delightful low right-footed effort into the bottom corner of Atletico goalkeeper David de Gea’s goal.