It is supposed to be two for joy. If Rafael Benitez had hoped that the injured magpie that limped around the Anfield pitch last night might offer a positive premonition, he had overlooked the fact that all the omens in the world will not paper over the cracks in a defence which is tissue-thin.
It capitulated again at the death here, Glen Johnson's aerial weakness allowing Juan Antonio Reyes to advance down the right and Diego Forlan to crash home an extra-time winner for Atletico Madrid, just seven minutes after Yossi Benayoun's goal seemed to have struck the decisive blow in Liverpool's favour.
It is bad enough that the goal brings a curtain down on Liverpool's sorry season – and possibly Benitez's competitive career at Anfield, which showed no sign of a positive future with a very frail, untested bunch of youngsters drifting from the field of play at the end.
What made it worse was that Forlan's decisive goal was a replica of his strike in the first leg at the Vicente Calderon last week – Forlan unmarked and Johnson beaten in the air. The last-minute nature of the Spaniards' strike mirrored the failings of concentration which saw Liverpool effectively eliminated from the Champions League by three late goals.
Though his side showed energy and enterprise in the first half and will be heartened by the contribution of Alberto Aquilani, who scored a quite brilliant goal just before the interval to send Liverpool ahead, Benitez's analysis of the rebuilding job needed will make grim reading for the club's fans this morning.
"We were talking in the past. The players they were saying they need three, four, five players. I agree with them," Benitez said, echoing the comments his striker Fernando Torres has made about the club – comments which seem to carry no appreciation of the financial limbo Liverpool are in. He was effectively saying Liverpool need half a new team. "The future is Chelsea now," he said. And after that? He was asked. "Hull. I don't know what will happen in the summer. We have two more games and will see what happens."
For 45 minutes, Liverpool seemed likely to compensate for a shaky defensive by taking strength from a typically powerful Anfield atmosphere. The day's endless rain ceased and the sky was azure blue as they began their mission – omens everywhere, it seemed – and Benitez made deliberate changes to quell the threat he knew that Sergio Aguero's return would pose. The first Liverpool shot went in on nine seconds and before Aquilani's moment came, Steven Gerrard swallowed up yard after yard of turf and revealed how, when he leads, Liverpool follow to a man. His slick interchanges with Aquilani brought two chances, the best one skied by Dirk Kuyt sliding on a Javier Mascherano cross.
But Atletico were the side with proper strikers and their threat was a dark, malevolent force for those who prayed for some kind of compensation from a bitterly poor Anfield season. It took a superb tackle from Mascherano, another clearly inspired by the prospect of a European final, to stop Simao advancing through on Pepe Reina, before Reina stood tall when other goalkeepers would have leapt in, after an exquisite 20-yard pass by Raul Garcia sent Simao through on his goal.
After the night's false dawn for Liverpool – Daniel Agger strayed marginally offside before stepping back to head home a Gerrard free kick – came a true one from Aquliani's finish, which was unquestionable in every way. Benayoun swiveled on to a throw-in down the right and crossed for Kuyt but the Italian latched on to it and placed a low shot of precision and power through a crowded area well to David de Gea's left.
Aquilani's joy was unbridled – his only other Liverpool goal was among the four against a pitiable Portsmouth last month – and the confidence seemed to course through him as he strode out of defence just beyond the hour and sent Kuyt away into the right channel to shoot low. It was one of several chances spurned by the Dutchman. Had his compatriot Ryan Babel only offered a better delivery to go with his strong running down the left, which continue through the night, and Liverpool's nerves might not have remained so on edge.
Benitez's players struggle to maintain momentum as the game wore on. On 80 minutes, Johnson took a short ball from Babel, advanced into the area and unravelled a shot which the goalkeeper De Gea touched over the bar. But Atletico then accelerated into their most threatening spell. Jamie Carragher was booked for a lunge on Aguero as he threatened to accelerate past him and on towards goal before Gerrard made a vital interception when Forlan crossed.
The breakthrough seemed to have come when Gerrard won possession in front of the Atletico area and the ball was recycled to Lucas Leiva, whose fine clipped pass Benayoun raced on to and fired low through the grasp of De Gea. But then came Forlan's strike and before the night was through Simao was threatening more terror, flighting a ball on to the top of the crossbar.
"It's true it [has been] a season when everything is against but you can see that everyone is working so hard," Benitez concluded. "This season has not been good enough so we have to concentrate in the next two games and do our best for next season."
He seemed to be speaking more in hope than expectation.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Mascherano (Degen, 110), Carragher, Agger, Johnson; Lucas, Gerrard; Benayoun (Pacheco, 113), Aquilani (El Zhar, 89), Babel; Kuyt. Substitutes not used Cavalieri (gk), Kyrgiakos, Ngog, Ayala.
Atletico Madrid (4-1-3-2): De Gea; Valera, Dominquez, Perea, A Lopez; Assuncao (Jurado, 99); Reyes, Raul Garcia, Simao; Aguero (Salvio, 121), Forlan (Camacho, 117). Substitutes not used Asenjo (gk), Juanito, Ujfalusi, Cabrera.
Referee T Hauge (Norway).Reuse content