Back in August, had you asked a Liverpool supporter what they would have wanted to see at Anfield in the week when April turned to May, the chances are that they would have said a European semi-final, followed by a match that looks like deciding the destiny of the Premier League title. After a year of trials and tribulations, beach balls and volcanoes, then they are getting what they wanted.
Admittedly it is not exactly how they envisaged it, but what else can you expect after this bizarre campaign? It is, eventually, a season that has come down to these two home games. First, a Europa League semi-final with Atletico Madrid – which the Reds enter a goal down but with a very good chance of overturning the deficit – followed by a Premier League clash with Chelsea, which could restore hopes of a top four finish for the hosts, virtually clinch the title for the visitors, or kill off the dreams of both. In short, it promises to be an eventful few days.
Liverpool enter them in good heart. Afforded the luxury of a flight home from Madrid after the first leg with Atletico, they showed their gratitude for this revolutionary form of travel by dispatching Burnley. If the Reds were obliging visitors at the Vicente Calderon Stadium – failing to seriously worry Atletico on a consistent basis – then they were impolite house guests at Turf Moor, turning up and promptly relegating their hosts – the second consecutive season that a result against Liverpool has relegated a team from the Premier League after West Brom last year. A typically focussed Steven Gerrard came to the fore in the 4-0 win, striking twice before Maxi Rodriguez’s first ever Reds goal and a potentially confidence boosting strike from Ryan Babel completed the rout. However, in truth collective minds had long since turned to the task in hand on Thursday night by the time Babel’s effort trickled over the line in the dying moments.
It could be a big week for the Dutchman. With Fernando Torres and Rodriguez both unable to face their former club due to injury and ineligibility, David Ngog missing at the weekend with a back injury and Dirk Kuyt having uncharacteristically limped off in the opening stages of the second half at Turf Moor, attacking options are looking thin on the ground for the visit of Atletico – who will welcome the exciting Sergio Aguero back in midweek. Babel could be the only available choice up-front for Liverpool, but it is a position that he’s longed to play in for a while. The Reds will miss Rodriguez though, who has proved to be an astute free transfer signing ever since his arrival from Atletico in January. He’s started 13 of Liverpool’s 16 Premier League games in that time – playing the full 90 minutes in 11 of those, setting up three goals and now scoring one. Considering that he scored Atletico’s goal the last time they played at Anfield, then the move looks an even better one. Without him on either side, goals will have to come from elsewhere.
Alberto Aquilani set up three of those on Sunday, including the Argentinean winger’s. The Italian looks a likely starter on Thursday too, and the stage could be set for a stellar performance from a man who seems to be slowly but surely growing into his role at a new club in a new country. It is the time of year when people inevitably draw up their ‘best and worst’ lists for the campaign, with Aquilani – due to his price tag, the expectations placed upon him and his injury record – already featuring heavily on the latter, but consider this – he’s started seven league games this season, and set up six goals. That’s the same amount of assists as PFA Team of the Year member Darren Fletcher. Aquilani has scored once as well, and while this column considers Fletcher a worthy member of the select XI, it does place a few things into focus. The Italian has been written off too quickly in the eyes of many, and given a good run in the team next season, he could still surprise many and still be the player that Liverpool supporters want him to be.
They’d like him to be that player on Thursday though, as a third European final in five years is just a tantalising 90 minutes away. They’ll have to be strong at the back due to the presences of Aguero and Diego Forlan, but Liverpool are fully capable of overturning their one-goal deficit and booking a date in Hamburg on May 12. One thing is for sure, the support at Anfield will be right behind them, no matter what rewards they were envisaging that this week could bring back in August.
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