The knock-out round of the UEFA Champions League has officially begun Tuesday night, and things didn’t start in the best of ways for Internazionale. With Fabio Capello as witness (the England manager was a guest of honor tonight), the Nerazzurri have lost 2-0 in the home of the Reds, Anfield Road: the mythical stadium of Liverpool, the venue which strikes fear into all those who step onto its grass. Roberto Mancini’s men did resist for over an hour playing one man down (double yellow for Marco Materazzi), but the energetic verve and incessant attacks of Liverpool proved to be too much. Dirk Kuyt and Steven Gerrard have put a double warranty stamp onto Quarter-final qualification, and it will be very hard indeed for Inter to overcome the two goal deficit, even in their home of Stadio Giuseppe Meazza.
Tactically, Inter coach Roberto Mancini decided not to risk Patrick vieira from the start, putting his faith into Esteban Cambiasso and Dejan Stankovic instead. The two center mids were supported by Javier Zanetti and Maxwell, while Christian Chivu, often ‘promoted’ to a midfield role this season, occupied the left-back position. Up front, scoring duties were lefts into the expert hands (or feet rather) of Julio Cruz and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
On the other side, Liverpool’s FA Cup match this week-end may well had its elimination price, Rafa Benitez could now count on refreshed troops for this very important match, including captain Steven Gerrard and striker Fernando “El Niño” Torres. The Reds’ midfield wall today was composed by Lucas Leiva and Javier Mascherano (in front of the backline defense), one step behind the Gerrard-Kuyt-Babel trio, all supporting the lone striker F.Torres. A combination which hasn’t been always effective this season, but which today proved its worth many times over, almost as if compensating for the times it did not. Meanwhile in the stands, the Kop faithful were making Inter really understand that indeed, “This is Anfield”, and that there would a very high mountain to climb for the Serie A team tonight.
Match events started immediately, with Liverpool taking the initiative very early into the game. In minute 3, Jamie Carragher asked Belgian referee Frank De Bleeckere for a handball call, on Ivan Córdoba inside the Inter box. The ref didn’t hesitate and waved play on, avoiding a terrible early mistake. Unfortunately for Inter, he would not avoid it a few minutes later. But back to the sequence of events. The ‘Rafa-boys’ were really pressing forward at this time, Kuyt and Babel creating havoc on opposite wings of the Inter box, forcing the Nerazzurri back into their own half. Still, Julio Cesar had yet to make a save (leaving the defensive work to the excellent Córdoba, saving his feathers on more than one occasion) when disaster happened for Inter. Minute 30, yellow card for Materazzi for another foul on Fernando Torres. It was his second. Red Card. Very harsh decision, but Inter down to 10 men. At Anfield. Oh boy.
It wasn’t the first time that the Nerazzurri were forced to play short-handed, Mancini getting plenty of practice in the Serie A this season. Kinda like saying: “I know what to do“: Chivu reverted back to a center role, Maxwell took the Romanian’s place as left-back, Stankovic moved on the wings. A 4-3-2 formation… daring. But was it going to work?
Looking back at the first 45 minutes, one could say that it did. Inter keeper Julio Cesar had to make two saves in the entire half, and not even too complicated ones. If Mancini’s boys could hold another 45, maybe they’d pull off a valiant scoreless tie… ah, but easier said than done at Anfield, right? 10 minutes after the restart, it was finally time for Patrick Vieira to makes his appearance, substituting one of the strikers (in this case Julio Cruz). Mancini was looking to patch up the leaks into his line-up, but the ex-Arsenal captain’s debut was far from being reassuring: one missed pass, leading to a ball stolen by Torres, through to the edge of the Inter box. El Niño’s accurate shot found the ready hand of Julio Cesar however, saving his team into corner. It was minute 58.
Minutes later, some more Vieira-craziness. With Liverpool in possession inside the Inter box, a Gerrard attempted chip over the Frenchman ended up striking his hands in rather obvious fashion, but the referee gave a corner. Shivers for Inter, but in all honesty one had the feeling De Bleeckere was compensating for something. That crazy red card in the first half perhaps, but I digress. Liverpool and Inter were still busy doing their little Champions League theatre, but judging by the possession statistic thus far, the play had rapidly turned into a Reds’ monologue. Finnan and Fabio Aurelio were multiplying their runs down the wings, ready to send in dangerous crosses, all the while Torres continued to hammer at the Inter goal from a distance (great turn by the Spaniard in minute 64, sending a show narrowly wide to the left).
Shortly after, Benitez decided it was time for Lucas Leiva to take a break, and for Peter Crouch to come in. Liverpool effectively turned into a 4-2-4 formation with Babel, Torres, Crouch and Kuyt operating very deep inside the Inter half. With their opponents one man down, who could blame the ex-Valencia coach for trying such a move? It immediately paid dividends, because on Crouch’s first real dangerous shot (wide), the man of the match (thus far) got injured: Ivan Córdoba landed akwardly in trying to head an aerial ball to safety, and twisted his knee. On came Nicolás Burdisso, a valid replacement but not as good as the Colombian had been tonight.
Liverpool continued their assault, no I should say ‘their siege’ to the Inter goal. The Nerazzurri weren’t even trying to move forward at this point, and there’s only so much a lone striker can do when the rest of his team is entrenched into its own half, even if that striker’s name is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The corner-kick count for each team (11-1 for Liverpool) really tells the whole story on how this game was going, a match which would have been marked as ‘epic resistance’ had Inter managed to keep their goal safe for just another 5 minutes. Minute 85 was fatal to them: Jermaine Pennant (on for Babel) controlled a loose ball on the right wing, and delivered a high cross for Dirk Kuyt at the opposite side. The Dutchman chested the ball, before slamming a hard shot into the ground which surpred the vigilance of the Inter keeper (with a little help from Maicon), and crashed into the net. 1-0 Liverpool, with 5 minutes to go.
Reds fans keep reading, it gets better. Inter fans, close the book and go to bed. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Minute 90, Liverpool made it two, and who else to deliver the blow than Reds’ Monsieur-tout-faire, captain courageous, Steven Gerrard. On the edge of the Inter box, wide on the right, the England international managed to imprint the ball with a magic trajectory, a powerful yet precise effort which avoided a couple of Inter legs and finished its course on the inside part of the left post. 2-0 Liverpool, Inter in shambles. It will be a very hard task indeed at San Siro, Inter will now need a miracle. The same kind of miracle perhaps that took place on May 4, 1965, when the Nerazzurri lost 3-1 at Anfield before winning 3-0 in the return leg. Can history repeat itself, 43 years later? We will find out in three weeks’ time.
|GOALSCORERS: 80’ Kuyt (L), 90’ Gerrard (L)|
|LIVERPOOL (4-2-3-1): Reina – Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, F.Aurelio – Lucas Leiva (64’ Crouch), Mascherano – Kuyt, Gerrard, Babel (72’ Pennant) – Torres. (bench: Itandje, Riise, Arbeloa, Benayoun, X.Alonso). Coach: Benitez.|
|INTER (4-4-2): Julio Cesar – Maicon, Córdoba (76’ Burdisso), Materazzi, Chivu – J.Zanetti, Cambiasso, Stankovic, Maxwell – Cruz (55’ Vieira), Ibrahimovic. (bench: Toldo, Maniche, Figo, Suazo, Crespo). Coach: Mancini.|