Sunday, 9 August 2009

Liverpool 1 - Atletico Madrid 2

Pre-Season Match 2009

Well, 'The Main (Stand) Man' has certainly clocked up his air-miles and he makes a welcome return back home to turn in his match report for the last pre-season game before the Reds mount their premiership campaign. It was a special occasion for Torres: the adopted son of the Kop, as it was the first time he's been pitted against his old club since joining two summers ago....

The final game of pre-season saw the strongest possible starting 11 named by Rafa for what was expected to be the stiffest test yet faced by a Liverpool side that has hardly shown scintillating form. The line-up of Reina, Johnson, Carragher, Ayala, Insua, Kuyt, Benayoun, Lucas, Mascherano, Gerrard and Torres took to the Anfield turf to face an Atletico team including ex-Manc Diego Forlan, who was roundly derided by the majority of the home crowd for the entire game, and Maxi Rodriguez, scorer of the Spanish side’s excellent goal at Anfield during the Champions League encounter of last season.

The opening exchanges saw some crisp passing and movement from the reds, and a looping first time cross from Kuyt soon had Asenjo at full stretch to prevent an easy chance for Torres. Liverpool settled quickly into their rhythm, a positive sign given the slow starts in all of the previous fixtures to date, and the visitors were unable to provide any real depth and penetration in the first quarter of an hour. Gerrard was finding some space in between the Atletico defensive and midfield quartets, with Benayoun and Kuyt providing good width although again the quality of balls into the box was often not of the required standard.

The promising start was soon to take a worrying turn, however, as Carragher went down after challenging Aguero for the ball. Having screamed at the physio who was loitering at the side of the pitch, the decision was taken to remove the influential centre half as a precaution. His replacement was Mikel San Jose, but before the reds could get him onto the pitch, Atletico went a goal ahead. The ball was worked onto the left flank, where Lopez picked it up and was able to approach the Liverpool box without a challenge. His pinpoint cross found Aguero unmarked on the edge of the six yard box, and his glancing header left Reina with no chance.

Liverpool looked to respond positively, perhaps the more senior players in the side recognising that attack was the best form of defence, particularly with such a young pairing now in operation at the heart of the back line. Within minutes Torres went through following a decent passing move. The threaded throughball from Mascherano left the ball slightly underfoot, however, and as the Spaniard dragged it forward the keeper was able to advance and smother the effort, with Kuyt unable to profit from the follow up. Again, Torres threatened moments later, some sublime skill close to the byline taking him clear of the defender. When he went down under the challenge, referee Phil Dowd turned down what appeared to be a decent shout for a penalty from the partisan Anfield masses. Johnson then found Gerrard surging into the box after cutting in from the right touchline, but the skipper’s first time effort could only find the side-netting.

The Torres-Gerrard combination then almost created another good chance, but the number 9 couldn’t quite find his colleague with his pass. Atletico then went down the other end of the pitch and almost extended their advantage. San Jose was beaten for pace down the left by Aguero, who cut into the box and attempted to slot home, but Reina was equal to the effort and fortunately for the reds the only benefit from the chance was a corner to the visitors. Just past the half hour mark, though, Atletico did double their tally with an annoyingly superb effort from our former ‘neighbour’ Forlan. His ball found Aguero on the edge of the Liverpool penalty area, and he followed it up with a run behind his fellow striker into space. A clever backheel found him just inside the area and his deft first time shot into the top right hand corner left Reina flying through the air without any real hope of ever getting a hand on it. The only comfort for reds fans should be that Forlan never showed that kind of form for Man Ure. The inexperience in the Liverpool backline was being ruthlessly exposed by two top quality strikers.

Liverpool again looked to work their way back into the match quickly, and indeed they should have done. A slide rule pass from Gerrard sent Torres racing through with only Asenjo to beat, but while his shot did make it round the keeper the post denied Liverpool their first goal and the ball rebounded to safety. The clock then began to tick on towards half time, and a lack of chances in the remaining ten minutes of the half did nothing to calm the disquiet in the crowd at the scoreline. Some good running from the front pair showed promise but on each occasion the end product was missing as the final pass went astray.

Benitez made no changes at the start of the second half, choosing instead to let his key players develop their match fitness ahead of next Sunday’s season opener. Liverpool soon threatened from their first corner of the half, a pacy ball swung across and was glanced on by Lucas at the near post, but neither Kuyt nor Ayala behind him were able to get anything on the ball to divert it into the net. A Kuyt cross from the right then found Torres on the penalty spot, but his header was from a standing start and he could not get the required pace on the ball to seriously trouble Asenjo.

Some good work from Johnson down the right then left Torres in space on the corner of the Atletico box. His curling ball into the six yard area was almost diverted into the net by Gerrard, but his effort under the challenge of Ujfalusi. Gerrard then had a penalty appeal again turned down by Dowd, as his attempts to get clear of the defence were thwarted by an outstretched arm. In all honesty, a penalty award would have been harsh as the ball cannoned onto the outstretched limb with no chance for the defender to get out of the way. A cynical challenge on Gerrard then saw Heitinga booked but the reds captain was unable to make anything of the resultant set-piece.

So far, all of the reds’ efforts to reduce the deficit had been in vain, and Benitez decided to make a change in bringing Babel on for Dirk Kuyt with an hour gone. The chances began to dry up a little, though, and even the Kop was uncharacteristically quiet as time went on without further opportunities presenting themselves. Torres was trying to create space for himself, and after taking on four defenders with ease he attempted to drag the ball round the keeper when a cutback would likely have been the better option with Babel and Benayoun in attendance. A cross from Benayoun then found Torres again in the middle, and whilst the Spaniard was able to get more power on his header this time, the effort was still relatively easy pickings for Asenjo. Forlan then got himself booked for a ridiculous bit of time-wasting, kicking the ball away for no apparent reason, and the yellow card was met with delight from the Anfield faithful.

Martin Kelly, one of the most impressive of the youngsters during this pre-season, then came on for Glen Johnson. A nervous piece of play from Pepe Reina almost gifted another goal to Aguero, but the Liverpool keeper was able to recover just in time. The entrance of Florent Sinama-Pongolle then resulted in a warm reception from the crowd, still keeping in mind the match-changing substitute’s appearance he had made in the Champions League versus Olympiakos in 2004. Liverpool again began to come forward with more purpose, runners from midfield causing the majority of the problems. Both Benayoun and Mascherano went bursting through having stolen the ball from opponents, but Assuncao snuffed out one attack with an awesome bit of defending whilst on the ground and Mascherano was unable provide an assured touch and ending up running out of pitch. Spearing and Voronin were introduced just prior to Gerrard’s accurate pass through to Lucas providing the catalyst for a goal for the reds. The Brazilian, who looked offside but was later proven to have been played on by the last defender, controlled well and slotted home comfortably to make the last 10 minutes more interesting. Moments later it was Gerrard again whose pass found Insua bombing forward, and his cross was not cleared at the first attempt by the Atletico defence. The ball ricocheted up into the air, and the keeper flapped at the ball before it dropped at the feet of Ngog. The ball was just too far under his feet, though, and his effort ended up with a throw in for Madrid.

The clock was against Liverpool by this point, and a corner on the left provided the last significant chance of the game. It was swung in by Gerrard, and Daniel Ayala rose well to get his head on the ball but was unable to direct it on target. Mr. Dowd blew his whistle to signify the end of proceedings for the day.

So again, despite an improved performance, Liverpool fell to Spanish opposition, and I must confess to having concerns with the season now so close to us. There were plenty of positives to take away from this encounter, but the most worrying aspect is the failure to take more of the decent chances that were created. This proved to be our downfall last season, with creativity not being matched by clinical finishing during home games leading to dropped points against lesser opposition. Still some work to do then for Rafa and the coaching/medical staff this week, although the good news is that the injury to Jamie Carragher is not thought to be serious at this point and he should be available next Sunday at White Hart Lane.

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