Georgina Turner
Thursday April 22nd, 2010

Atletico Madrid took a huge step towards reaching a first European final since 1986 by beating Liverpool 1-0 in the first leg of their Europa League semifinal on Thursday.

Uruguayan striker Diego Forlan scored the game's only goal in the ninth minute, tapping home the ball from close range after initially misheading Jose Manuel Jurado's cross.

Liverpool looked jaded for much of the game, possibly due to its long overland journey to Madrid due to air travel disruptions. Without star striker Fernando Torres, the Reds failed to trouble Atletico goalkeeper David De Gea.

This is perhaps not the semifinal Rafa Benitez and Liverpool would like to be in, but beggars can't be choosers. Sat in seventh in the Premier League with only an outside chance of securing Champions League football next season, Atletico Madrid will have to do.

Of course the big talking point is the coach, train and plane journey Liverpool have had to make to get there in the first place. Having seen Barcelona's performance after their trek to San Siro on Tuesday night, Rafa's keen to make lemonade. "I am sure they will be tired, but it can actually help the team spirit when everyone has something like this in common," he insisted, on arrival in Madrid yesterday.

Arguably more important, however, is the fact that both sides will be without key strikers, the hosts losing Sergio Aguero to suspension for this first leg, while Liverpool have travelled without Fernando Torres, who's still in Barcelona after an operation on his dodgy knee. Neither team will want to concede beforehand that they're too much weaker without them, but it's always nice to have a ready-made excuse, isn't it?

Kick-off is at 3.05 p.m. ET, so I'll be here from 2.45 p.m. to bring you the game live. These things are always a bit more fun when they're interactive, so you can email me (georgina.turner.si@gmail.com) before and during the game with your thoughts, whether they're football-related or explaining where you'd like to be stuck thanks to a coughing volcano.

So, after what feels like weeks of footage of Liverpool footballers crossing Europe by land (seriously, it's not that primitive over here; they didn't uncover new species along the way or anything), the match is finally upon us. Both teams have had domestic seasons to forget, and the fact that this game is a Europa League encounter tells you things haven't been so hot for them in Europe, either.

Making it to the final of -- and winning -- this competition could be important to the ability of both clubs to hold onto their best talent if neither climbs their respective league tables. Liverpool last met Atletico in preseason, when they lost 2-1; before that, two Champions League meetings ended in 1-1 draws -- the second of which saw Steven Gerrard score a late equalizing penalty. Fernando Torres and Sergio Aguero are both missing. For all these reasons, folks, this is unlikely to be a wide-open game.

David Ngog will have to outmuscle Tomas Ujfalusi (no laughing at the back) to make an impact up front on his own for Liverpool, while Jose Manuel Jurado partners Diego Forlan for Atletico. Benitez has gone with Javier Mascherano, Gerrard, Dirk Kuyt and Yossi Benayoun behind Ngog, while Quique Flores has Simao, Raul Garcia and Jose Antonio Reyes revving up across the middle.

Atletico Madrid: David De Gea, Tomas Ujfalusi, Luis Perea, Alvaro Dominguez, Antonio Lopez, Paulo Assuncao, Simao Sabrosa, Raul Garcia, Jose Antonio Reyes, Jose Manuel Jurado, Diego Forlan. Subs: Sergio Asenjo, Juan Valera, Ignacio Camacho, Eduardo Salvio, Juanito, Leandro Cabrera, Borja Gonzalez.

Liverpool: Jose Reina, Glen Johnson, Jamie Carragher, Sotirios Kyrgiakos, Daniel Agger, Dirk Kuyt, Lucas Leiva, Javier Mascherano, Yossi Benayoun, Steven Gerrard, David Ngog. Subs: Diego Cavalieri, Alberto Aquilani, Ryan Babel, Philipp Degen, Nabil El Zhar, Daniel Ayala, Daniel Pacheco.

Kickoff: Atletico gets the ball rolling. "You shall be supporting the Reds today," orders Paul Benedict. "C'mon you Reds!"

3': Liverpool muster the most menace in the early exchanges, depending on how menacing you find N'gog. Yeah, not much so far.

5': Atletico is faster to get forward when it does, but its losing the ball just as cheaply as Liverpool. It's a bit of a frantic, don't-have-a-date-for-the-prom, start.

9': GOAL!: Atletico 1-0 Liverpool. What a pudding goal. Forlan completely miscues a header from a Jurado cross, but since there's not a single Liverpool player near him, he has time to collect the ball and bobble it over the line past a last desperate lunge from Carragher.

10': Headed chance for Benayoun, but he would have needed a telescopic neck to really get a decent contact on it.

12': I think the ball must be making a suspicious ticking noise; Liverpool are, to a man, desperate to get rid of it.

14': Lucky escape for Reina, who fumbles the ball out under no pressure at all but isn't called upon to make a save from the resulting corner kick.

17': Some fan mail for ah-eh-come-on-la'-I'm-English-we-don'-dive-do-we-though Steven Gerrard just in. "Over/under two: the number of times Gerrard dives tonight," offers Phil Neezy, thumbing through a pad of triplicates. "I am in," pipes up Tammy, "and I have $20 on four dives." He's stayed on his feet so far, which is about as much as can be said for any of the away team.

18': Outraged by my slight a moment ago, Benayoun puts the ball into the net, only to be flagged, incorrectly, offside. Then Gerrard thumps a shot into the side-netting.

22': Atletico is back in possession, though it has not troubled Reina with it yet.

25': Kuyt played Gerrard in on the righthand edge of the area, but he's restricted to an aimless canter across to the left. Some signs of life in Liverpool, but Ngog will need a better first touch if he's going to skip past Atletico's defense.

28': "Call this season for Liverpool, the revenge of XABI," says Michael Nichols, giving himself a sore throat. "Just like a car with no motor."

29': Kyrgiakos: what a shower.

32': Atletico -- particularly Reyes and Jurado -- is passing it around as if Liverpool's defense isn't even there, but the final ball is lacking for now.

34': Moment of pressure from Liverpool, but when a move must end with N'gog attempting an overhead kick, you know you're in trouble.

37': It's fair to say that no one's going to hear "It's just like watching Brazil," tonight.

40': Sorry, I nodded off for a second there. Still no scrapbook moments to report.

41': Ujfalusi rampages forward and looks to have the Liverpool defense squirming, but can only toepoke the ball into the side netting.

43': Michael Nichols is back. "$20 says five dives for Stevie G. And three of those winey, pouty looks he gives to the ref." I'm not sure, but I think Liverpool might be playing just badly enough for Gerrard to crack out one of those heroic one-man second-half efforts that add an extra 0 or two to his salary.

45': Or, we could have another 45 minutes of this. The whistle's blown on an entirely forgettable first half, and I'm heading for the drinks cupboard.

Halftime musings: "With it looking increasingly like Liverpool not making fourth position in the Premiership, and no other major accomplishments this season," begins Ross Hughes, riffing on fans' pain, "do you think that if Benitez fails to win the Europa League he will be fired at the end of the season?" I'm not sure the club's owners have any better offers at the moment, but you'd be forgiven for thinking the camel's knees must be buckling now. Thank goodness for a 1200-mile journey to blame all this on.

Second half: Breaking news -- N'gog manages to control the kickoff from Gerrard and pass it back into the Liverpool ranks.

47': Liverpool have started with purpose; Gerrard dive-o-meter cranks up to one.

49': Lucas plays Kuyt into the box, but his attempt to control the ball on his chest goes awry.

52': Gerrard was on the brink of charging into the area, but is picked off the ball so neatly even he knows not to take a tumble. Though Liverpool hasn't really troubled the Atletico defense,it certainly perturbed them more in the last seven minutes that they did in the entire first half.

53': Oh yeah, it's all about the semantics.

54': In other (possibly more thrilling) news, Bobby Zamora has been subbed off for Clint Demsey. Fulham are still 0-0 with Hamburg.

56': UK viewers are being treated to an anecdotal history of the Atletico kit, that's how much action we've had in the last couple of minutes. A Kyrgiakos foul on Jurado is now holding things up.

57': Superb intervention from Perea sets Atletico off, and Reina just about palms a Simao shot over the bar. That was sucking your teeth close.

61': Atletico are having possession in the right areas, but once again they're struggling to get the right final ball, and the right man, to meet up.

62': Forlan's just found a phone on the pitch. As you do.

64': Gerrard spots de Gea off his line and takes a punt from the halfway line, but the scrambling Atletico keeper watches it sail way over his goal. After another highly successful outing, N'gog has come off, Babel is on.

67': Babel's first contribution of the night is to fail spectacularly to do something with a decent ball left to right from Kuyt.

70': There's just no way around Atletico's defense, especially when Lucas and Gerrard go for the same ball and deny each other on the opposition's behalf.

74': Neither side has put much of any real class together since we last met, although Johnson's barge on Simao at least peps things up a bit.

77': I actually just let out a fireworks-esque "ooooh, aaah": Ujfalusi skimmed a shot towards goal from the righthand corner of the box, and the Liverpool defense only just gets to the rebound from Reina's parry before Simao.

79': Reyes wins a free kick from Johnson, but it's a poor delivery. Atletico will be encouraged by tonight though -- as far as anyone can look forward to a trip to Anfield.

83': We had to wait forever for Gerrard to take a free kick thanks to the usual macho hair-pulling in the box, and then he wellies it straight out.

84': Having let the game flow thus far, the ref's remembered he's carrying some rather natty colored cards, and flourished several. One for Kyrgiakos, for whinging, and another for whichever Atletico player tugged Lucas back there.

85': If anyone in black had got even a hair on Gerrard's cross, Liverpool would have drawn level then.

87': "I realize I'm slightly late with this," says Gill, "but it's a good job Forlan actually put that away. Candidate for Worst Header Ever?" Quite possibly -- it was reminiscent of Terry's attempt to get his head to the ball in conceding a penalty to Spurs last week.

89': Can Liverpool get it together at the last? Unconfirmed reports that Gerrard's been spotted pulling on a cape.

90': Three more minutes to come.

91': I know what they say about glass houses and all that, but still, be thankful you're not watching this on UK television: Graham Taylor's contributions to the commentary are on a par with an old man in a bus stop. Camacho's come on for Reyes.

93': Two corners in quick succession for Atletico, but Liverpool will head back to Anfield with just the one goal to overturn.

FINAL: Atletico 1-0 Liverpool.

Well, that might not have been the game we were hoping for, nor the scoreline Liverpool were hoping for, but it's not all bad. Rafa's side doesn't lose too often at home, and will be reasonably confident of scoring at least one. Inevitably, they will keep the ball for longer and thus, by the law of probability, put greater pressure on Atletico's defense.

Liverpool's worries, though, will be a) Ngog being their best/only option up front again, and b) another quick start seeing Atletico past the defense. Ngog offered absolutely nothing this evening, other than the first touch of a foosball player; with an unreliable supply forward, they'll wish they could rely on someone rather more lethal in front of goal. As for the defense, they found their way into the game eventually, but Jamie Carragher nearly did himself a mischief screaming at the rest of his back line. They'll need to keep things tight from the off, which means Daniel Agger keeping a close eye on Ujfalusi and Raul Garcia, and Glen Johnson knuckling down to keep Simao and Reyes quiet. Join me for more Europa League fun next week. For now, cheerio and thanks for following.

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