Chelsea wins 7-5 on aggregate
Arbeloa Skrtel Carragher Aurelio
Kuyt Mascherano Lucas Benayoun
Alonso 28’ (pen)
Lampard 76’ 89’
Holy shit. One goal away from winning it twice – at 2-0 in the first half and 4-3 in the second. So close, and yet so far.
No Gerrard, but not much difference to the formation either. Lucas slotted in, with Liverpool basically 4-2-3-1 when defending and 4-1-4-1 when attacking, with Alonso sitting deeper and orchestrating play.
And for 30 minutes, it worked a treat. Chelsea seemed happy to sit back, unwilling to believe Liverpool could breach the defense three times. Ha. Within 13 minutes, Torres went close to putting that notion to bed, with Chelsea opened up by a lovely backheel by Benayoun, only for the Spaniard to narrowly miss the far post with a left-footed shot. And Chelsea marched right down the field, with Lampard smashing a free kick just wide. It was never going to be a cagey game.
In the 19th, Liverpool got the early goal, bamboozling Chelsea with a free kick of their own. The home side suspected a cross into the box, and Aurelio embarrassed Cech with a low drive into the near post, reminiscent of Gary Macca’s winner versus Everton eight years ago this week. And nine minutes later, with pressure still constant, Stamford Bridge was stunned silent when Ivanovic hauled down Alonso in the box. Not many referees would have called it – grabbing in the box happens all the time, although I clearly think it was the right call – but not many referees are as fussy as this one.
The second goal finally woke Chelsea up. And the entrance of Anelka, in the 35th for Kalou definitely helped matters. They threatened in the 31st when Ivanovic went looking for a make-up penalty, and 38th, when Reina did well to claim Alex’s header down from Lampard’s free kick. But Liverpool could have gotten the third in the 45th against the run of play when Cech saved Kuyt’s header and then missed a cross moments later, with Torres unable to make contact during the scramble.
But the second half was all Chelsea’s until – like against Bolton – they fell asleep having thought the game over. And Liverpool were quickly punished. Reina was wrong-footed by Drogba making contact with Anelka’s low cross after a clever, strong run by the Frenchman in the 51st (don’t blame Pepe – those goals happen), and six minutes later, Alex thumped in a 25-yard free kick (what seemed to be Chelsea’s 50th or so set piece).
Liverpool had a couple of chances – in the 63rd when Cech spilled Mascherano’s shot but Benayoun couldn’t take advantage, and in the 70th when Torres turned dangerously outside the box and fired a yard wide. But Chelsea seemingly sealed it in the 76th when Alonso’s stray pass only found Ballack. He found Drogba, barely onside, who centered for Lampard.
Honestly, the game seemed to turn four minutes later, when Liverpool withdrew Torres for Ngog. The French striker didn’t do it on his own – although he was willing to mix it up – but the move, obviously to protect Torres, made Chelsea think that it was over. Within three minutes, Liverpool had tallied twice.
First, Lucas scored his first in the Champions League when his shot deflected in off Essien’s shoulder, a deserved goal for a diligent if unspectacular job filling in for Captain Fantastic. Barely a minute later, Riera (who came on for Mascherano in the 69th, Rafa’s first throw of the dice) got by Ivanovic and put in an inch-perfect cross for Kuyt to head home from two yards.
But Chelsea got the all-important next goal. A quick throw found Anelka cutting in from the right, and again Lampard was the beneficiary, with a hard shot clattering in off the post. Fittingly for this game, Ngog almost scored within a minute, but Essien cleared his stab off the line.
Obviously, the loss is disappointing, but take nothing away from this team. No scapegoats. No finger-pointing. The resilience shown by this team is a credit to everyone at the club, and has to serve as a morale booster for the last six league games. There was no quit in this team – needing two goals, Riera and Benayoun were still working the one-two and running all out in the 93rd minute.
Chelsea did what they had to. They held on, and kept Liverpool from crossing that line. Alex’s goal was simply fierce. Lampard scored two crucial ones when it mattered most. But they also dove all over the place (unsurprisingly Drogba, who showed his pace and power with his goal, the most), taking advantage of a referee who was inclined to keep his whistle in his mouth anyway.
Although I’m sure every fan would rather remain in the Champions League, this makes the league the sole focus for the rest of the season. And there are a ton of positives to take away. Almost everyone, me included, questioned Liverpool’s chances. But the team scored four goals at Stamford Bridge. Without Gerrard, and with Torres barely getting a touch, well-marshaled by Alex and Carvalho. No one’s heads dropped. No one expected to lose, no matter the scoreline. At the end of the day, that’s all you can ask for; I couldn’t be prouder of the team.
Keep that up.