Liverpool visit Atletico at the Vicente Calderon in the first leg of the Europa League semi-final.
After one of the most grueling trips in world history (that occurred in first-class train, charter bus, and airplane accommodations), Liverpool arrive in Madrid to take on the former employer of Fernando Torres and Maxi Rodriguez. Of course, neither will see any time on the pitch tomorrow due to injury and UEFA conspiracy/rules respectively, but it's a tie that you can't help but look forward to. The clubs seem to have a mutual respect for one another, exchanging a handful of players in the past few years. They've have even managed to match each other in mediocrity in their respective league campaigns, although the shortcomings of Liverpool don't quite match Atletico's struggles on the year.
The Spanish side are in 10th place in La Liga, losers of their last three, and have had to listen to increasing rumors about the departure of their star front man, Sergio Aguero. Who, incidentally, will miss tomorrow's match. That last bit is frighteningly familiar, but the rest are problems that even Liverpool can't run with. Which begs the question, how the hell are they in any sort of semi-final?
And there's not really an answer. In the knockout stages they most recently drew their way past Valencia on the away goals rule, after drawing their way past Sporting on the away goals rule and nicking a 90th minute tie-winner through Diego Forlan against Galatasaray---in a tie that was destined for extra time because it was all level. This astonishing commitment to sister-kissing came on the heels of winning zero matches in the Champions League group stages, although they did defeat Panathinaikos in both legs of the qualifying round in August.
It's not entirely down to benefiting from away goals, but it's close. Clearly they're no strangers to close matches---they've also managed to work their way into the Copa del Rey final, and they're the only team to defeat Barca in La Liga on the season, a match that took place on the pitch that Liverpool visits tomorrow.
I mentioned the absence of Kun Aguero, which will likely be felt deeply by Atletico in attack. But they've got a good amount of talent beyond him, and it'd be foolish to assume that without Kun the Atletico attack won't be dangerous. Diego Forlan is the obvious mention---the former United man has had a fine run with Atletico, and with or without Aguero he's going to cause some problems. He'll be joined in attack by Simao (another former Liverpool target) and Jose Antonio Reyes, the latter of which agrees with the assertion that Aguero's absence will have a large impact.
On the Liverpool side, there's no surprises. It's Rafa in Europe, away from Anfield, short of Fernando Torres, looking to survive the first leg with a chance to nip through to the final. The previous two knockout rounds give us a pretty good indication of the side's resiliency regardless of who's available---down 1-0 to Lille and 2-1 to Benfica, Liverpool returned to Anfield and overwhelmed their opponents. You don't expect anything less from a Benitez-led side, and it seems that Atletico will be willing hosts given their affinity for draws.
Of course, this all means a lineup that is strikingly familiar. There's no other options in the back line, the central midfield's task will be interrupt and defend (read: Lucas and Masch), and Gerrard will operate behind a lone striker. The questions on the wings still remain, but subtracting Maxi from the equation makes things a bit easier. Rafa's chosen Ryan Babel more often in Europe of late (barring his red card ban), and I wouldn't be surprised if he was given a run-out tomorrow. The play of David Ngog on Monday was encouraging enough, but I'm not sure it's enough to warrant a starting spot here. If it was, then we'll see Kuyt on the right. If not, Kuyt up top and Yossi Benayoun on the right.
The Europa League has gone from nightmare scenario to the one saving grace for Liverpool this year, and they have to be able to get themselves up for it even if it does come on the heels of a 24-hour journey. Atletico won't do Liverpool any favors, and the Reds will need all their mettle to get a result that leaves them with hope heading back to Anfield next week.