Chelsea win 4-3 on aggregate
Arbeloa Carragher Skrtel Riise
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun
Drogba 33’ 105’
Lampard 98’ (pen)
At the third time of asking at this stage, Chelsea finally beat Liverpool in the Champions League. But only just, and they had more Liverpool mistakes to thank for much of it.
The game started out opposite to what was both expected and hoped. It was end-to-end action, contrary to the previous cagey meetings between the clubs, but Chelsea was on the front foot with Liverpool struggling to link passes and threaten in the final third. However, the away side did have the first real chance in the 10th minute when Gerrard’s superlative ball put Torres in, only for him to have a tight angle and for Cech to make the save.
Then, Drogba (naturally, after all the pre-match talk) opened the scoring in the 33rd, with an earlier injury to Skrtel (Hyypia came on in the 22nd) not helping matters. Kalou was onside (Liverpool’s offside trap was dodgy all game long) and cutting in around Hyypia forced Reina into an excellent save. But that man Drogba was wide open for the rebound, with Riise having drifted centrally in a misguided (and late) attempt to get a body in front of Kalou’s effort.
From there, Chelsea looked to strangle the life out of the game, and for the rest of the first half Liverpool followed the script, with the only real goal-scoring opportunity coming from a narrowly-wide Ballack free kick. Chelsea were bossing the midfield, with both Alonso and Mascherano unable to unlock the defense with passes, while Makelele continued to shadow Gerrard step for step, resulting in Gerrard not seeing enough of the ball and Torres isolated.
But the away side provided the necessary response after the interval. Within three minutes, Kuyt forced Cech into another excellent save with a flick from the outside of his foot, followed by an excellent tackle by Drogba in the box on Torres from the resulting corner.
Liverpool were able to keep possession and set the tempo far better than in the first half, and it was little coincidence that Gerrard was dropping deeper in the second half. Soon after Benayoun and Kuyt switched flanks, and it was the Israeli international who set up the equalizer.
A mazy run in from the right took Benayoun towards the top of the box, where he carved a pass through for Torres to slide past Cech, which was exactly what Liverpool was looking for from Benayoun when Benitez named him as a surprise starter. It looked like Gerrard was spot on when he said ‘we haven’t played there with Fernando Torres.’
From there, with Chelsea more resilient but failing to carve out much offensively, it was little surprise that extra time was needed after the 90. But, credit to Chelsea, they responded strongest and quickest in overtime.
It looked like Essien had put the home side in front after five minutes, slamming home the rebound after a corner was half-cleared, but it was rightfully ruled off with 4 players offside and deemed to be obstructing Reina. That stroke of fortune (Liverpool’s had similar goals go in against them, first to mind is one by Reading in the Carling Cup) coupled with Liverpool second-half reply, looked to be an excellent omen, but three minutes later, Lampard was standing at the penalty spot.
Hyypia’s attempted touch to clear was too soft and allowed Ballack to stay in the frame, and the Finnish center back clearly fouled Ballack after the German pushed the ball away. Lampard, who’s beaten Reina front the spot at every time of asking, sent the keeper the wrong way to give Chelsea the lead. It’s tough to condemn Hyypia, but the big Finn, who’s been an incredible player for the club time and time again, unnecessarily gave that one away.
Liverpool were still in it, as an away goal would have won the tie. But only for seven minutes. With the intermission fast approaching, Riise slowed, raising his hand for offside when Anelka was put through. However, once again, Chelsea had beaten the trap, and Anelka centered to Drogba making the near post run across the box, and for the second time the striker made no mistake inside the near post. 1-3, game over.
Babel, who had come on for Torres following Lampard’s penalty (and this will be a bone of contention; I assume Torres was gassed and Benitez felt he wouldn’t have much more impact, but anytime a team takes off a 30-goal scorer when they’re chasing a game, there are bound to be questions and rightfully so), got Liverpool a lifeline with a stunning shot from distance that Cech could only palm into his goal in the 117th, but by then it was too late.
Despite my opening paragraph, I do give Chelsea credit. They were excellent throughout the first half, Drogba especially (surprise, surprise, a world-class striker, who is prone to diving, turns it on after being called out), and finished the game stronger, despite Liverpool’s players being fresher. But after another never-say-die performance that saw the side equalize against a team that’s truly in form, it’s tough to swallow a loss when it was defense mistakes that led to all three goals.
Despite some poor performances, Liverpool got themselves back in this game, got the needed away goal (their first at Stamford Bridge since Bruno freaking Cheyrou), and looked on pace for at least penalties. It wasn’t a surprising storyline given the history between the clubs and Liverpool's European pedigree, and even as depressed as I am, I’m proud of the team for it. And in an instant, it was gone. Sports sure are fun. Again, credit to Chelsea, but it sure feels like the defense should have done better.
It was an enthralling game, and at the end of it, I’ll reluctantly (very, very reluctantly) say the more deserving side’s going to the finals. But the fact that Liverpool not only got themselves back in the game, but could easily be the ones through is going to linger in the memory for a while. I sure hope it stays with the players and management.
If I can’t root for a forfeited match with neither side winning in Moscow, I hope the Blues pip it.
I need a shower.