The extra time goal from Atletico Madrid’s Diego Forlan late last night ensures that, yes, it has been a catastrophic season by Liverpool’s very high standards. There will be no face saving, glorious sun-filled afternoon in Hamburg for the Europa League final – and all Reds supporters wish Fulham good luck, and a good day’s drinking at that – but Liverpool’s campaign can be safely written off as an abject failure now. Those who were concerned that their jokes – made so often, and with so much good reason, about Liverpool this season – might carry a little less weight should the Reds have won Europe’s second tier trophy need not have worried. Failure has been achieved quite spectacularly.
Yet it could, and should, have been totally different. Liverpool are a much better team than Atletico Madrid. So are Fulham and around half of the Premier League, and had Yossi Benayoun given the Reds the lead within 10 seconds of kick off last night then it would be safe to assume that Liverpool would be in the Europa League final this morning. But Benayoun’s shot was saved by David de Gea, and despite some excellent, dominant football from Liverpool – one move could have ended in one of their greatest ever goals had Dirk Kuyt finished a quite fantastic one touch passing display in the first half – the Reds only had Alberto Aquilani’s superb finish to show for their efforts over 90 minutes. Pity the Italian, who deserved to be on a winning side last night. Of course, he was, but the sloppiness and lax defending from the first leg was what cost Liverpool both in Madrid and yesterday. Benayoun’s extra time goal – a sublime finish from an even better Lucas pass – should have been the catalyst for a solid, dogged determination that would see Liverpool over the line and through to the final, yet it never materialised. Forlan was left in the amount of space he usually needs to score a goal in England, and the Reds were punished. In truth, poor defending was the only way that they were going to suffer due to the relative invisibility of Forlan and Sergio Aguero – undoubtedly a promising player but some way short of his exorbitant price tag on this evidence.
Chelsea want to pay that price tag however, if you believe somewhat dubious reports. The title-chasing Blues turn up at Anfield on Sunday with the eyes of the world upon them, and they dare not fail. Liverpool’s integrity has been called into doubt ahead of the weekend fixture, with many believing that the Reds will deliberately underperform as taking any points from the Londoners will all but hand a record 19th league crown to Manchester United, confirming them as the country’s most successful club. While it is true to say that Anfield is braced for its strangest atmosphere ever since a title-chasing Blackburn Rovers turned up in 1995, there can be no doubt about the ambitions and honesty of a Rafa Benitez team. However, the winning goal from Forlan – no doubt wildly celebrated in Manchester, and indeed in all of the four corners of the globe inhabited by Manchester United fans – could come back to haunt the Uruguayan’s former club. Liverpool are shattered after a season of being beaten from pillar to post – that extra time winner last night will have knocked the stuffing out of them, and youngsters such as Nabil El Zhar and Dani Pacheco – both of whom were turned to in the pursuit of a goal last night – could easily earn starting places on Sunday now. They are not exactly players for the United fans to confidently get behind, and it might just be that Forlan’s goal has finished Liverpool off for the campaign. We shall see on Sunday.
A top four finish is still somehow attainable for Liverpool, but the chances of that will severely diminish if both Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur win tomorrow. Perhaps more pertinently, Everton still have to be headed off to secure European football of any kind next season, and while Liverpool will try to win on Sunday, if both teams play to their potential then they will probably lose – defeats happen in football. One happened to United at Anfield earlier this season, and six more happened in the league over the course of the campaign. If United do not end up as champions, those losses will be the reason, not Chelsea winning one game on Merseyside.
Liverpool might win on Sunday – the perversions of this odd campaign probably dictate they will do – but they could lose too. If they do, the bitter pill of defeat will not be as hard to swallow as it was last night.
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