Football - Liverpool FC: SO Liverpool’s attempts to follow in the footsteps of The Beatles on the route to success and glory in Hamburg faltered at the final hurdle.
Now the questions will be asked whether Rafael Benitez has reached the end of his long and winding road as Anfield manager.
If the Spaniard was still waiting on reassurances over his long-term future earlier this week, then he received little encouragement on the field last night as hopes of a Europa League final appearance were dashed by Atletico Madrid.
On an agonising evening at Anfield, Liverpool fought back from a first-leg deficit and into a position to seal an all-English final against Fulham before the May 12 appointment was snatched from their grasp.
Just when the suffering home support thought their team’s season couldn’t get any worse, along came the nightmare scenario of former Manchester United striker Diego Forlan heading the goal in front of the Kop that sent Benitez’s side tumbling out.
Forlan’s strike at the Vicente Calderon seven days earlier had been cancelled out by a 44th-minute Alberto Aquilani strike that sent the game into an extra-time period in which Yossi Benayoun put Liverpool ahead on aggregate on 95 minutes.
But when Forlan nodded home a Jose Antonio Reyes cross eight minutes later it meant Atletico were through on away goals, leaving Liverpool without a trophy for a fourth year and Benitez facing yet more questions over his immediate future.
This has been his annus horibilis at Anfield, a season in which just about everything that possibly could go wrong has gone wrong: key players injured or out of form, no fresh investment and even beachballs conspiring against the Spaniard.
Yet Benitez must take his share of the blame for a campaign of unrelentingly chronic underachievement.
Last night, the Spaniard picked a starting line-up that appeared an attempt to accommodate his strongest 11 available players.
It backfired. While Aquilani benefited with another improved performance and a well-taken goal, it came at the expense of too many other players, Steven Gerrard restricted in a defensive midfield role, Javier Mascherano reined in at right-back and Glen Johnson’s failings at left-back ultimately exposed in the most devastating fashion.
Let’s be honest, Atletico are not a great team. They have reached the final having won just two of their 14 European games this season and progressed on away goals in the last three rounds.
But then neither Lyon nor Fiorentina were particularly impressive, yet they too got the better of Benitez on his preferred European stage.
So what does that say about Liverpool? Simply, they are not good enough, beaten too many times by too many average teams.
The lack of depth to the squad was painfully evident last night by the Anfield manager turning to Nabil El Zhar, Philipp Degen and young Dani Pacheco in an effort to change the game late on. Not the most inspiring bench.
So much for the omens. On the three previous occasions Liverpool had gone into a European semi-final second leg at Anfield with a one-goal deficit, they reached the final.
The first half had gone to plan with Aquilani’s opener a minute before the break.
A quick throw by Mascherano down the right wing caught Reyes napping and found Benayoun, whose cutback from the byline, while possibly intended for Kuyt, fell invitingly for Aquilani to meet just inside the area with a delightful low right-footed effort into the bottom corner of Atletico goalkeeper David de Gea’s goal.
Roused by a typically stirring Kop rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone, Benitez’s men took only eight seconds to create their first chance, Daniel Agger’s long ball flicked on by Kuyt for Benayoun to chase, the Israeli’s near-post effort turned behind by the feet of de Gea.
A scintillating passing movement should having been capped by the opener a quarter-of-an-hour later. Aquilani, Kuyt and Steven Gerrard painted one-touch patterns around the Atletico penalty area before Gerrard released Mascherano down the right to deliver a low cross that was directed over by the sliding Kuyt from barely six yards.
Liverpool thought they had found a way through just past the half-hour when Agger headed home Gerrard’s free-kick from the right, only for the Dane’s celebrations to be rightly cut short by an offside flag.
Atletico, though, were always threatening. Raul Garcia capitalised on some slack Liverpool marking to thrash a 25-yard shot that Pepe Reina was compelled to shovel behind before their best first-half opening on 28 minutes.
A fine pass by Reyes released Aguero behind Jamie Carragher down the inside left channel but, after Reina had done well to usher the Argentine wide, his eventual cross into the box was easily cleared.
With Aquilani’s goal having levelled the tie on aggregate, Liverpool should have approached the second half with a greater degree of patience and confidence.
But it was Atletico who grew in stature, although with Liverpool’s defence holding a strong, resilient line, the visitors’ only efforts of note came from Garcia shots from range that were high, wide and not very handsome.
Johnson rarely ventured beyond the halfway line, but one foray forward on 81 minutes ended with a dipping shot that was palmed over by de Gea.
Liverpool went ahead for the first time in the tie five minutes into extra time. With the Atletico defence parked on the edge of their own area, a delightful lofted pass by Lucas Leiva found Benayoun inside the area whose angled shot went through de Gea.
Atletico responded by bringing on another forward in Jose Manuel Jurado, and after a Reyes shot troubled Reina, the substitute was only inches wide with a curling effort.
But the visitors got their goal on 103 minutes, Reyes beating Johnson to a bouncing ball and crossing with the outside of his foot for Forlan to head home in front of the Kop.
That was that. Simao clipped over as Atletico sought to kill the tie with a demoralised Liverpool unable to respond.
Throughout last night’s game, a magpie pottered around the pitch in front of the Kop. But if it was seeking any silverware, it will need to come back next year.
Whether it would encounter Benitez remains to be seen.