The Dream Is Over
Long may he prove his critics wrong...
Despite Liverpool beating Atletico Madrid 2-1 at Anfield last night and putting on a fantastic performance with every player giving 110%, that early goal from the first leg came back to haunt us after Atletico booked their place in the final on the away goals rule.
Due to injuries and a tactical decision by Benitez to switch Johnson onto the left side, the line up was as good as could be under recent circumstances. Masch was pushed into right-back position with Johnson on the left, Carra and Agger were in the centre and Reina in goal.
Kuyt lead the line with Babel and Benayoun on the wings. Aquilani, Gerrard and Lucas made up the rest of the XI.
Liverpool made a fantastic start to the game with immense tempo and urgency. Gaining 4 corners within the first minutes of the match, it was clear the attitude was there. Anfield was as vociferous as ever and the stage was set for a memorable night in Liverpool.
Despite the good start and the holding off of Atletico Madrid, it wasn't until just before half time that Liverpool chalked up their first goal.
When Benayoun whipped in a threatening cross, Dirk Kuyt managed to get on the end of it, in the process the ball was laid to Aquilani who with an excellent finish found the only gap left in the goal to squeeze home the effort.
Anfield went crazy, i went crazy. The dream was still on.
At this point, the goal for Liverpool now meant that the tie was all square, should this be the result at 90minutes the game would go into extra time and then penalties depending on the outcome after the half hour.
For the second half it was still a very determined display from all the boys in red but it didn't appear as if a goal was coming. There was no need to panic though, and focus was needed, if Atletico were to score in this second half, Liverpool would require another 2 goals before the 90minutes was up to go through to the final.
Atletico had some speculative long range efforts from the likes of Garcia & Simao, but thankfully most chances from the Spaniards went wide. The lads were defending well from set pieces too after Atletico managed to pick up a few free kicks in dangerous areas as the clock ticked down.
At 88minutes Rafa made his first substitution. Aquilani left the field for Nabil El Zhar. Moan if you like, make it an excuse, fact is Rafa left that change as long as he possibly could, yes, no denying Aquilani had an excellent game but you are talking about a man who is arguably still not even match fit, fresh legs were definitely required and although i feel NEZ had a poor stint, just look at the bench Benitez had to work with.
So it was into extra time, Liverpool could score with no return and go through, concede and win 3-1, 4-2 etc or it could remain 1-1 on aggregate and it would be penalties.
It took just 5 minutes for Liverpool to change the whole layout of the game. Lucas with a great little dink over to Yossi set the Israeli up perfectly who hit it first time and from an unfavourable angle put Liverpool 2-0 in front on the night.
Again the crowd raised the decibels, Benayoun's celebration and expression was emphatic. It was a picture painted perfectly and the paint had almost dried.
All Liverpool had to do was hold on, as easy as it sounds, all that was required was to not allow Atletico to score. We had managed this for 90minutes, the task seemed achievable but just 5minutes later, celebration turned to sheer nerves.
Diego Forlan, of all the players stuck the dagger in after he scored from a remarkably similar position to where he was for the goal in the first leg.
Johnson was beaten by Reyes and in the midst of this some sort of confusion between Reina and Glen, this meant that the Spaniard had to track back towards goal. This however was not the real problem, the space that Forlan was given was shocking, considering we had seen what this could do already from the first leg, we simply did not learn our lesson.
Ultimately, whether you want to run your mouth about being annoyed at substitutions, whether you are going to blame all of this on Rafa or whether you are going to remove your Liverpool shirt and put your Chelsea one back on. Fact is, a defensive mishap is what let us down, it was unfortunate, it shouldn't of happened, and its not an excuse but don't sit there and say to me that it was the substitutions that lost the game.
Considering only the introduction of Nabil El Zhar was made before we conceded, for that part of the match the "blame game" is useless.
Yes, i can sort of agree that when we required a late, late goal, taking off Benayoun would maybe not be your first option, but lets not forget the very limited "options" Benitez had to try to manage a tiring team in extra time.
Beforehand, Benitez had brought on Philip Degen for Mascherano, not many groans at the time were made I'm sure because we could all clearly see that Degen would add more to the attack down the flanks.
The fickleness in people soon came out some ten minutes later though when we were out of the competition. The slating of Degen was in full force. Why? What did you think he was going to do? Win us the game? He did what was asked, and i for one am happy with that.
As for the introduction of Pacheco, anyone who has seen him play will know that he could be just the guy to add that last minute spark needed, and some of his first touches almost led to a Steven Gerrard smash.
Complain all you like, fact is, it just wasn't to be. The lads fought their asses off, even players like Ryan Babel who are often questioned for their level of input were playing for their lives.
And despite this, Liverpool still couldn't find that third goal to take them through but make no bones about it not one person on that pitch did not give their all, so regardless of the extremely gutting realisation that we will not be in Hamburg for the final, i am proud of the team, the manager and the (real) fans.
Considering we actually won the game, and in good style, with two great goals, such is football that people get so worked up they cannot even appreciate the positives.
After that massive blow to the heartbeat of the end of our season, all i know now is that it is absolutely vital that we end the season with dignity and some respect.
I couldn't give a toss anymore if us beating Chelsea hands United the title, i want us to give our all against the Blues and Hull and if we finish in 6th, so what, we tried.
In a season which has again lacked investment, been plagued with injuries, had more going on off the field than on it, it is just "one of those seasons" and Benitez is more than entitled to one.
Roll on August.