Most Liverpool sages were relieved when Rafael Benitez abandoned his rotation policy, but there was a reason for it. Last night the Liverpool manager was forced to withdraw three of his key players, who were all pleading exhaustion. From cruising to victory Liverpool were forced to settle for a point.
Victory in the return at Anfield in 12 days' time will still ensure Liverpool's progress to the knock-out stages of the Champions League but they would have been closer had they held on to the lead established by Robbie Keane's 14th-minute goal. Simao Sabrosa, who once nearly signed for Liverpool, levelled after 83 minutes. The great imponderable is whether they would have held on had Benitez, partly with an eye on Sunday's Premier League match at joint-leaders Chelsea, not withdrawn Keane, Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso. The latter had largely controlled the match although Atletico had shown signs of threatening an equalizer.
"Keane had a muscular problem, Gerrard was very tired, Alonso had a knock on his knee," said Benitez. "They are still feeling the effects of the international break. I wanted to bring on fresh players." He added the soft pitch, following a day of rain, exacerbated their problems.
Keane is the biggest doubt for Stamford Bridge, which would be a problem for Benitez with Fernando Torres unlikely to have recovered from his hamstring injury. "We need to check on Keane. The doctor will be key," said Benitez.
Atletico were happier. Not only had they salvaged a draw, the night appeared to pass off without anything untoward happening to concern Uefa. That was significant as Atletico have a two-match ground closure hanging over them pending appeal following problems in their last match against Marseilles. The Ultras made their feelings clear turning their backs and whistling during the pre-match Champions League anthem, then chanting abuse about Uefa, but there was no repeat of the racist chanting and police baton charges which disfigured the Marseilles match.
Javier Aguirre, whose future was the subject of speculation following three successive defeats, had made seven changes bringing in former Liverpool players Florent Sinama-Pongolle – for the injured and exhausted Sergio Aguero – and Luis Garcia. His inclusion meant Atletico fielded as many Spanish players as Liverpool, four. Benitez unexpectedly omitted Dirk Kuyt, who scored twice against Wigan on Saturday, deploying Gerrard behind Keane in attack for the first time this season.
Pre-match, Liverpool's co-owner, Tom Hicks, had denied fresh reports that he was seeking to sell the club. Hicks and co-owner George Gillett have been unable to move forward on the club's proposed new stadium, in part because of the credit crunch, and have been using profits to make interest payments on the debt they loaded on to the club when buying it. However Hicks insisted he has no desire to sell.
And no wonder. The stadium plans may still be on the drawing board but Benitez's rebuilding is beginning to make real progress on the pitch. Liverpool immediately looked the more assured side last night with Gerrard almost reaching a dangerous cross by Andrea Dossena. It was thus no surprise when Liverpool scored. Liverpool won the ball, enabling Gerrard to slip a pass through to Keane springing the offside trap. The Irishman scored his second goal since his £20m summer move with aplomb.
It was the perfect start. Liverpool could now sit back, allow Atletico to play in front of them, and hit on the break. Had Keane turned in Gerrard's 22nd-minute cross the tactic would have worked perfectly as Atletico barely threatened. Albert Riera might also have had a penalty but he made such a dramatic dive he was booked instead. Maniche was also cautioned for diving and Alvaro Arbeloa for upending Simao.
Atletico brought on Aguero at the break. The Argentine wunderkind may be suffering from an ankle injury, muscular problems and sheer burn-out but desperate measures were required. "He may be tired but he can give us a spark," said Aguirre apologetically.
Benitez felt he did indeed make a difference. He prompted a burst of pressure in which Maniche wrongly had a goal chalked off for offside and Reina turned Simao's shot against the far post. His father, who kept goal for Atletico in the 1974 European Cup final, would have been proud of the save.
With Yossi Benayoun also having a goal wrongly disallowed it seemed there would be no further score but with seven minutes left, their defensive discipline deserted them. Diego Forlan was able to roll a pass into the path of the unmarked Simao who drove inside the far post.
"I would have been pleased with the draw beforehand but I now feel it is two points lost," said Benitez. "We had control of the game and chances to kill it but paid for a mistake."
Atletico Madrid (4-2-2-2): Franco; Seitaridis, Perea, Alvaro Dominguez, Antonio Lopez; Maniche, Camacho (Raul Garcia, 71); Luis Garcia (Aguero, h-t), Simao; Forlan, Sinama-Pongolle (Miguel, 75). Substitutes not used: Bernabe (gk), Heitinga, Pernia, Paulo Assuncao.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Arbeloa, Carragher, Agger, Dossena; Mascherano, Xabi Alonso (Lucas, 75); Benayon, Gerrard (Babel, 61), Riera; Keane (Kuyt, 52). Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Fabio Aurelio, Pennant, Darby.
Referee: C Bo Larsen (Denmark).
Results: PSV Eindhoven 0 Atletico Madrid 3; Marseilles 1 Liverpool 2; Liverpool 3 PSV Eindhoven 0; Atletico Madrid 2 Marseilles 1; Atletico Madrid 1 Liverpool 1; PSV Eindhoven 2 Marseilles 0.
Liverpool's remaining group stage fixtures: 4 Nov: Atletico Madrid (h); 26 Nov: Marseilles (h); 9 Dec: PSV Eindhoven (a).