Doubts reign over Liverpool’s ability to turn over Atletico Madrid to reach the Europa League final

Liverpool v Atletico Madrid, Europa League semi-final second leg, April 29, 2010

Liverpool 1.57; Draw 3.77; Atletico Madrid 5.47

Putting aside the wider context of Liverpool’s miserable season at large and whether or not winning the Europa League will be viewed as a success or not, the Merseysiders know that if they have any ambitions of trying to salvage their campaign with a trophy then they must overturn a 1-nil deficit against Atletico Madrid. (Liverpool are 3.10 to win the Europa League, Atletico are 3.50.)

The Spaniards take their narrow lead into Thursday night’s semi-final at Anfield after Diego Forlan’s solitary strike at the Vicente Calderon Stadium last week. Quique Sanchez Flores’ team then followed up that win with a 3-1 victory over Tenerife in La Liga on Sunday to further boost confidence and climb back into the top half of the table.

Flores’s tactics at the weekend underlined how focused his side are to see off Liverpool’s challenge and reach the final in Hamburg on May 12th. Both Simao and Diego Forlan started the match on the bench, while stand-in forward Eduardo Salvio, 19, took his opportunity of a rare start in the Atleti attack alongside Kun Aguero with an early brace inside the first half.

It wasn’t all plain-sailing however as, after establishing a 2-nil lead against Tenerife, the Rojiblancos conceded and immediately the nerves began to jangle. Flores responded by introducing Simao and Diego Forlan into the action and their experience helped steady the ship, before Aguero killed the match with a third after the interval.

The match with Tenerife served as a nutshell of Atletico’s season; often electric when going forward they are also constantly brittle at the back. And to make matters worse their confidence always seems to be in the balance depending on which side scored the last goal in whichever match they find themselves in.

Had Yossi Benayoun’s goal not been wrongly chalked off for offside in the first leg, then Atletico’s belief before the return leg would undoubtedly have taken a serious knock. But as it stands, Liverpool now need to win at least 2-nil to advance to the final – a situation that means the Spaniards can consider themselves slight favourites before the kick-off.

Up-front Atleti will roll out their leading strikers Forlan and Aguero, while their midfield should be filled out by Simao, Juan Antonio Reyes and enforcer Jurado. The problems for Atletico, though, come at the back where none of defenders Antonio Lopez, Mariano Pernia, Tomas Ujfalusi nor Alvaro Dominguez come highly recommended. It is also likely to be a busy night for much-hyped 19-year-old keeper David De Gea between the sticks.

While Atletico will arrive to the match in buoyant mood, Liverpool also will be in high-spirits following their 4-nil trouncing of Burnley at Turf Moor last weekend. Steven Gerrard was the star of the show for the Scousers with a double – his second was a beauty – yet Liverpool’s captain also found himself sharing the limelight with the Reds’ duffer of the year, Alberto Aquilani.

Since joining the Merseysiders last summer for big money Aquilani has struggled to make an impact at Anfield. But against the Clarets the Italian had arguably his best match since joining the Reds as, not only did he set up Stevie G for both his goals, but he later created another for Maxi Rodriguez with an expansive, Alonso-esque pass.

But despite the promise, it should be noted that Sunday was just the second time the former Roma man has managed to complete 90 minutes in the league this season. Accordingly, it is expected that Aquilani will return to the bench against Atleti, with Lucas Leiva partnering Javier Mascherano in the centre of midfield, with Gerrard assisting the lone striker – be that Dirk Kuyt (who is struggling to be fit with a calf strain), David Ngog (struggling with a back injury) or Ryan Babel.

While Liverpool will need their attack to have their shooting boots on in order to score the requisite two-goals-minimum (or penalties) to reach the showpiece final, equally important will be the necessity not to concede. In the league the Reds have been stingy at the back in recent weeks, having conceded just three times in the last seven matches, but in the Europa League the Scousers have had difficulty shutting up shop with only two clean sheets in seven outings.

Had Fernando Torres been available then it would have been far easier to believe that Liverpool could turn the tie around. But with El Nino missing, and Ngog and Kuyt nursing knocks, it is easy to lose faith in the Scouser’s bouncebackability. On the flipside though, Atletico arrive in Blighty with a sorry away record of having lost four and drawn three of their last seven roads trips, although their away form in the Europa League is more impressive having drawn at Valencia and Sporting Lisbon while beating Galatasaray in the earlier rounds.

A nervous night is expected, and it wouldn’t be too surprising if the match went to extra time where anything could happen.

101gg predicts: Liverpool 2 – Atletico Madrid 1 (6.11)

Liverpool 1.57; Draw 3.77; Atletico Madrid 5.47