Atletico Madrid v Liverpool, Europa League semi-final first leg, April 22, 2010
In a parallel universe this match would have been over-hyped for all the right reasons.
Liverpool should be arriving in Madrid on Thursday night with their tails up after a long, hard and generally disappointing season. Had the Merseysiders not drawn with both Birmingham and Fulham in the league at the start of the month the Reds would have been firmly in the race for fourth place, and this Europa League semi-final would have been viewed as the silverware to gloss a difficult but potentially successful year.
We should be talking about how Fernando Torres, undoubtedly one of the best strikers in world football who has matured and got even better since transferring to the Premier League, is set to face his boyhood mentors and employers Atleti. And from the Spanish point of view we should be lauding the qualities of Argentine striker Kun Aguero – a reported long-standing target for Chelsea if the gutter press in England are to be believed.
Sadly all those conversations have been stopped in their tracks early on, and, with Liverpool struggling in the league, Torres injured and Aguero suspended, much of the pre-match focus has centred on the Icelandic volcano and Liverpool’s long-haul travel plans after the Reds beat West Ham 3-nil in the league on Monday night.
“I’m sorry that they have to travel so many kilometres to get to Madrid, although I don’t think it’s something that will be noticed on the pitch. I think, more than the journey, they could be more tired because they played on Monday, but in a semi-final like this you don’t notice fatigue.” – Jurado.
Zing! In other words, according to the Atletico enforcer, no travel excuses will be afforded for Liverpool in the event that they lose at the Vicente Calderon Stadium. In truth though, Liverpool (2.50 to win the Europa League) still have every chance of beating Atletico in Spain with the Rojiblancos one of the most consistently inconsistent teams in Europe this season.
The red and whites have had a miserable season, which kicked off in the worst possible manner with one win in their opening 11 league matches which saw former coach Abel Resino lose his job in October. Sanchez Flores was then installed and, though they remain a relatively lowly 10th in the league, their season has steadily improved with the defeat of Valencia in the quarter-finals the highlight of their season to date.
Yet, almost amazingly, Atletico have advanced into the semi-finals without making their home any type of fortress whatsoever. The Madridstas, who held Valencia to a goalless draw at home in the second leg failed to win a single home game in the Champions League group stage whilst also drawing with both Galatasaray and Sporting Lisbon in front of their own fans since dropping into the Europa League. (Atletico are 5.00 to win the Europa League.)
Adding to the inconsistencies, after having won six straight home matches in the league during February, March and the beginning of April, Atleti blew their home form last time out in the league when they were humbled 2-1 by rock-bottom outfit Xerez. Atletico followed up that result by losing 2-1 away at Villarreal last weekend, leaving them with three straight defeats as they prepare for Liverpool’s visit.
Madrid coach Quique Sanchez Flores only used striker Diego Forlan for 15 minutes last weekend in order that the Uruguayan should be in rude health for the Scousers. The former Manchester United man has been in sparkling form of late and will be Atletico’s main goal threat on Thursday.
The problems for Atletico, though, come at the back. None of defenders Antonio Lopez, Mariano Pernia, Tomas Ujfalusi nor Alvaro Dominguez come highly recommended, and the backline is always susceptible against the qualityÂ Liverpool possess.
In El Ninoâ€™s absense, Liverpool are likely to play David Ngog as a lone striker with skipper Steven Gerard in an advanced midfield role to provide support. Yossi Benayoun will be looking for a start having scored against the Hammers on Monday, while Benitez could employ both Lucas Leiva and Javier Mascherano as the Reds look for a clean sheet in Spain.
Liverpoolâ€™s defence is somewhat disrupted, as Emiliano Insua and Fabio Aurelio are both still out. That should see Daniel Agger continue at left-back, with Glen Johnson, Jamie Carragher andÂ Sotirios Kyrgiakos filling out the rest of the defensive positions.
With both clubs needing the Europa League to show their fans that the season hasn’t been a complete washout, and while both sides are coping with losses of key components too, plus fatigue being throw into the mix, this game has the potential for being a cracker. (1.97 to be over 2.5 goals.) Provided an early goal is scored, we could seen a host of goals in an open and mistake-ridden game.
101gg predicts: Atletico Madrid 2 – Liverpool 2 (13.76)