Europa League – Forlan away goal breaks Liverpool hearts
Liverpool missed out on an all-English Europa League final after they were knocked out by Atletico Madrid despite winning the semi-final second leg 2-1 in extra time at Anfield.
Chasing a one-goal deficit from the first leg in the Spanish capital, Alberto Aquilani levelled the tie just before half-time. With neither side scoring in the second half, the game went into extra time, where Yossi Benayoun fired the home side into an aggregate lead for the first time in the tie.
Atletico will face Fulham at the Hamburg Arena on May 12, a week before they face Sevilla in the Copa del Rey final.
The result leaves Liverpool’s slight chances of Champions League qualification as the sole ray of light in a season otherwise blighted with underachievement.
For so much of the game, things looked positive for the Reds as, despite injuries forcing Rafael Benitez to field Javier Mascherano and Glen Johnson at right and left-back respectively, they looked on course to overturn the one-goal deficit.
Liverpool fans may not have envisaged the Europa League being the high point of their season at the start of the campaign, but the Anfield crowd was in full voice before kick-off, and they were rewarded with a frantic opening spell.
With just eight seconds on the clock, Benayoun had sight of goal when Dirk Kuyt played him in, but his strike from an acute angle was saved by goalkeeper David de Gea, whose team barely got out of their own half in a hectic first five minutes.
Aquilani, playing a more advanced role than he has done previously in a Liverpool shirt, had his first sight of goal when Kuyt flicked the ball into his path outside the box, but the Italian drilled his low shot right at de Gea.
Atletico still carried a threat on the counter attack, and midfielder Raul Garcia tested Pepe Reina from 20 yards, but the Spanish keeper turned the effort around the post after it bounced in front of him.
The Rojiblancos had Argentina striker Sergio Aguero back in the side following his suspension from the first leg, and his pace saw him latch on to a through ball from deep by Jose Antonio Reyes. The Chelsea target could have gone down as he was forced wide by Reina, but instead chipped a ball across goal that was neither on target nor met by a team-mate.
Liverpool at times played with a guile and confidence that belied their familiarity with big European nights, and a mesmerising one-touch move almost led to one of the great European goals, as Steven Gerrard, Benayoun and Aquilani exchanged one-touch passes before Kuyt turned Mascherano’s cross over the bar.
On the half-hour mark the Reds thought they had taken the lead through Daniel Agger, but the Dane’s goal was disallowed for offside after he headed in Gerrard’s free-kick.
Aquilani got the goal that both he and Liverpool deserved a minute before half-time. Benayoun rolled past left-back Antonio Lopez and dug out a cross that Aquilani struck low and inside the near post for only his second goal for the club.
The match became more even after the break, as Atletico saw more of the ball while chances came at a premium.
Aquilani, who finally delivered the confident and crafty performance that Rafael Benitez paid Roma £20 million for last summer, found Kuyt with the outside of his boot, but the Dutchman could only hit de Gea from an acute angle.
Liverpool were now soaking up pressure and hitting on the break as much as Atletico, and one clearance from a corner led to Benayoun slaloming forward before firing over the bar.
As extra time approached, Benitez replaced a clearly fatigued Aquilani with Nabil EL Zhar, and the whistle blew signalling an extra 30 minutes.
Five minutes into the first period Liverpool were repelled continually repelled on the edge of the area before Lucas Leiva lifted a well-weighted in to Benayoun, who fired across the face of goal and his shot went in off the far post.
Liverpool knew that a single Atletico goal would still be enough to see the Spanish side through and, after substitute Manuel Jurado bent a solid strike just wide, they made the breakthrough.
Reyes beat Johnson to a header and toe-poked a cross over to Forlan, who smashed a merciless finish into the roof of the net. The Liverpool defenders had their hands in the air, but the linesman’s flag rightly stayed down, and Liverpool fans were given another reason to write of this campaign.
Tony Mabert / Eurosport