Chelsea survive early Liverpool scare to blast route into Champions League semifinals
14 April 2009 09:42
This was epic stuff, one of the most memorable, fluctuating games in the history of the European Cup.
Only when Frank Lampard struck his second, making it 4-4 with a minute remaining could Chelsea fans finally relax. Liverpool had been that determined, that dangerous in front of goal.
Once again Chelsea were grateful to the exceptional Lampard and to their canny manager, Guus Hiddink, who guided his players through a real Merseyside storm with his tactical tweaks, notably the introduction of Nicolas Anelka, and some rousing half-time rhetoric with Liverpool leading 2-0.
In keeping with an insane night, the Bridge DJ span some Madness at the final whistle. Chelsea had gone one step beyond, one step closer to the final in Rome but they must first negotiate Barcelona in the semis. Ashley Cole will be suspended for the Camp Nou leg, an absence Lionel Messi could exploit.
Lacking Steven Gerrard, trailing 3-1 from the first leg, Benitez's players had initially responded superbly, taking the game to Chelsea in a thrilling first half, scoring through Aurelio and Alonso before Hiddink steadied their nerves and Drogba, Alex and Lampard turned a magnificent game on its head again. But then came Lucas and Kuyt, leaving Liverpool to need one goal, setting up a frantic finale.
By half-time the "alarm bells'' Hiddink had talked about should have rung loudly in his players' ears when Fernando Torres threatened early. Strangely, Chelsea were subdued for a half, allowing Liverpool to dictate the rhythm. Chelsea fans sought to the raise the tempo and the temperature, willing the team and vilifying Liverpool's support, who responded in spiky kind.
The belief clearly flowing from the visitor's section found an echo in the hearts of the Liverpool players, who tore into a Chelsea defender patently missing John Terry. One banner in the stands read: "JT, Captain, Leader, Legend'' to which could be added "Spectator'' last night. Chelsea's most vocal force, their Trojan defender, was suspended and how they struggled without him in an astonishing first period.
Defensive lapses cost Chelsea dear. It seemed as if the Spanish referee, Luis Medina Cantalejo, was in town on missionary work, cleaning up all the nudges and shirt-pulling so often endemic in English football. When Ricardo Carvalho pulled Dirk Kuyt's shirt after 19 minutes, Aurelio lined up the free-kick.
Petr Cech seemed to anticipate a lifted ball to the far-post. So he organised the construction of the wall to that side yet it soon transpired that the Czech keeper would make a lousy surveyor. It was too far to the right, giving Aurelio a sight of goal. Cech forgot another thing. Aurelio is Brazilian. With Chelsea's keeper too far towards the too far-post, Aurelio could not resist the temptation, swerving the ball into the untended near-post. The legend of Cech's infallibility took another knock.
Mistakes littered Chelsea's first-half performance. Nine minutes later, Aurelio swept in a free-kick and Cantalejo again reprised his impersonation of Robert de Niro in "Taxi Driver'', cleaning up the mean streets of the inner city.
As a blur of red and blue shirts threw themselves at Aurelio's ball, Branislav Ivanovic hauled down Alonso. Cantalejo pointed to the spot, despite no Liverpool player appealing, despite Martin Skrtel tugging at Ivanovic's shirt.
As Chelsea went into meltdown, Alonso kept calm, placing the ball on the spot, and then emphatically drilling to Cech's right. The noise pouring out of the Liverpool corner of the ground nearly rocked Stamford Bridge on its foundations. One banner waved vigorously by the away fans said it all - "Defiance''.
Liverpool were running on adrenalin, on the emotion of recent days, building up to today's Hillsborough memorial service at Anfield.
Liverpool played with the head as well as the head. Alonso was outstanding, breaking up play, spraying passes and converting that spot-kick.
Mascherano was having a storming game, charging between the boxes, taking the sight of the ball at Chelsea feet as a personal insult. Such was his hunger for possession that the Argentinian even tackled Ashley Cole when the pair were off the pitch, both having overrun the ball.
Here was a test of Chelsea's character and, at last, they began to stir. They are made of strong stuff under Hiddink. The Bridge screamed for Cantalejo to continue his angry head master routine and penalise Carragher for wrestling down Ivanovic in the box. Hiddink was livid at the Spaniard's refusal, railing at the officials and clearly unimpressed with certain players who simply froze. When Salomon Kalou ducked out of one challenge too many, the ever-decisive Hiddink replaced him with Nicolas Anelka. It was to prove an inspired move.
Still Liverpool pressured, Kuyt bringing a good save from Cech. Hiddink had to work some magic, to inspire his players. He sent them out early for the second half, setting the tone of a team eager for a new start.
Now it was Chelsea making all the moves, making it 2-2 on the night within 12 minutes.
Now it was Liverpool making stupid mistakes. When Frank Lampard sent Anelka down the right, the Frenchman's cross was low and hard and met athletically by Drogba. He seemed merely to have helped the ball across but Reina, in a moment that will haunt his sleep, fumbled the ball into his goal. How the Bridge crowed, their chants of "are you Riise in disguise?'' providing a painful reminder of the Norwegian full-back's damaging own goal last year.
The Blues were now in the mood, confidence now apparent in their every touch. When Carragher fouled Florent Malouda 30 yards out, Alex responded magnificently, driving an unstoppable free-kick through a crowd of players and past a startled Reina.
Liverpool required a miracle, snookers, a great escape plotted by Gerrard but he was absent. Their dream ended when Drogba crossed from the left with 14 minutes remaining and Lampard applied the coup de grace.
Benitez's passion-players refused to surrender. Drawing on the very greatest traditions of the club, Liverpool responded, riddling the Chelsea fans with nerves. First came Lucas, his shot deflecting in off Michael Essien.
Instead it was Chelsea who struck, Lampard grabbing his second, making it 4-4 on the night and leaving Liverpool requiring two goals. Mission impossible. What a game. Platini take note.