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Nov 4, 2008

It's never over until it's over for Gerrard

Liverpool 1 - 1 Atletico Madrid

Comebacks require a blend of physical strength and mental resilience, a capacity to make something, however improbable, happen, and the ability to ignore the previous openings that produced nothing.

A flexible attitude to tactics and a selection of players who can hold their nerve when all others lose theirs help, too, when fashioning a side of footballing Steve McQueens.

If nothing else, Liverpool have perfected the formula for escapology this season. A few heart rates on Merseyside might be rather lower if they could master the art of scoring earlier on, but their latest late show had a familiarity to it.

As Atletico Madrid discovered, like Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Wigan and Manchester City before them, Liverpool are at their most dangerous when their most pessimistic fans are starting to ponder an early departure. Though luck has often been on their side, as it was for this Champions League game, Fernando Torres and Dirk Kuyt have completed previous fightbacks but this time Steven Gerrard supplied the late and fortunate twist in the tale.

Atletico had defended stoutly, with Luis Perea outstanding, and scored a terrific goal through Maxi Rodriguez. Yet when teams acquire a momentum, they can become unstoppable. Liverpool found as much on Saturday, when there was an inevitability about Tottenham's winner. Now, in their more accustomed role of responding after the concession of a goal, they conjured another unlikely response.

It came when Gerrard, powering into the box, jumped with Mariano Pernia as both battled to meet Kuyt's flick. "If it was in the middle of the pitch, it would be a free kick," argued Rafa Benitez, who cited an unsuccessful appeal earlier as well, but the award of it upset Atletico. And probably with good reason. Nevertheless, despite his role in an award of such a soft penalty, it was harder to fault Gerrard for his cool conversion.

"We were attacking and attacking all the time," added Benitez, regarding it as a reward for Liverpool's indefatigable approach. "We will continue attacking until the end. That is the way to change results at the end."

"How things change in the minute of play," said a phlegmatic Javier Aguirre. "One minute we're in the next phase and suddenly that happens." His players' reaction was less considered. Four were booked within a couple of minutes. They had retained their composure for 93 minutes, but that was not enough. Besides Gerrard's tendency to take matters into his own hands, however, Liverpool's incremental improvement in a second half of unstinting pressure reflected well on Benitez. Opportunities, as the Spaniard noted, were plentiful. Daniel Agger spurned more chances than he would usually enjoy in a season while David N'Gog twice came close.

The Frenchman's presence on the pitch was the product of one of Benitez's more intriguing switches. Off went the oft-substituted Robbie Keane and on came Jean-Alain Boumsong's less calamity-prone cousin, providing a quicker, taller and more direct option in attack. The Irishman's penchant for the spectacular had almost yielded a wonderful first-half goal yet, the longer the evening progressed, the more his efforts appeared fruitless.

"He is working hard," added his manager. "Sometimes you change strikers and the new striker can be a little bit more lucky." Keane, however, is ill-suited to his role as the most advanced player. The natural contender for it, Torres, was deemed not quite fit enough. "You never know," said Benitez, asked it Torres would have settled proceedings earlier. Had he appeared, however, then it is probable the forceful N'Gog would not have done.

The removal of Javier Mascherano for Lucas Leiva was another swap that appeared to entail the introduction of an inferior player but the Brazilian was another replacement to exert an influence. With Kuyt moving from the wing to partner the rookie, Gerrard ended on the right, from where he won the penalty.

If the night's second goal was high on drama, the first contained rather more quality. It was a beautifully crafted counter-attack, the sort that Benitez, a devotee of such movements, would normally admire. Antonio Lopez, rarely spotted outside his own half before then, emerged on the right wing, breaking at pace and finding Maxi Rodriguez with his cross. The Argentine took one touch to speed past Jamie Carragher before drilling a shot in.

Yet visitors to Anfield - Amr Zaki in particular - have managed memorable goals already. It earns them respect but, when Liverpool embark upon one of their many comebacks, rarely the required result.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Steven Gerrard - As is often the case, Gerrard both led and epitomised Liverpool. They, and he, never gave up, and it was fitting he scored the eventual equaliser. With four Champions League goals, he is outscoring the majority of the strikers in the competition.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Several of their finest results this season have come in Torres' absence, but this was an evening when Liverpool missed their No. 9. He should be fit to face West Brom on Saturday and, if that means Robbie Keane is granted a return to the deeper role, the Irishman may be the most relieved man to see the Spaniard back.

ATLETICO VERDICT: They appeared worthy winners, and probable group winners, until Gerrard intervened. Their prowess on the counter-attack makes Atletico dangerous opponents and, amid the talk of absentees, it is worth remembering Sergio Aguero was limited to a late cameo.

FRIENDS REUNITED: Or not. There was no emotional reunion for the former Atletico captain Torres, while the Liverpool old boys in the Atletico ranks were scarcely more prominent. Florent Sinama-Pongolle was an unused substitute while Luis Garcia was belatedly brought on, to a pleasingly loud reception, in the 90th minute.

MICHEL PLATINI ON THE GRASSY KNOLL? While Atletico dispute European football's governing body's decision to ban them from the Vicente Calderon Stadium, Aguirre was asked if he felt UEFA had an influence in the penalty decision. It suggested a conspiracy theory is being formulated in Spain, but the Mexican had the sense to answer in the negative.

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