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Liverpool v. Chelsea
First Leg: 8 April 2009 – Anfield Stadium, England
Second Leg: 14 April 2009 – Stamford Bridge, England
Much like May Day, Easter, and Daylight Savings Time, Liverpool versus Chelsea in the Champions League has become an annual spring tradition. These two sides have clashed in each of the last four UEFA Champions League seasons, and their matches have been ever bit as competitive as they’ve been memorable. They met in the Semi-finals in 2007-2008 and in 2006-2007 and 2004-2005, and in the group phase in 2005-2006. If familiarity breeds contempt, then these two squads would be mortal enemies.
Until last season, Liverpool had mostly dominated their Premiership rivals, knocking Chelsea out in the 2006-2007 Semis on penalty kicks and in 2004-2005 by an aggregate score of 1-0. However, Chelsea managed to break their hoodoo and got their revenge last season when, aided by an own-goal from John Arne Riise in the first leg, Chelsea finally made it to their very first Champions League Final after dispatching of Liverpool in extra time during the second leg. In those contests, Chelsea have scored five goals and Liverpool have scored five. It doesn’t get any closer than that.
This season, Liverpool have beaten Chelsea twice in the Premiership and have looked to be the superior team. The first time they clashed, Liverpool famously ended Chelsea’s record 86-match home unbeaten streak. The second time they met, there was some controversy as Frank Lampard was wrongfully sent off, nevertheless Liverpool thoroughly outplayed Chelsea all match long and won resoundingly. Throw in the fact that Liverpool seem to play better in Europe, and this one looks like it could be over before it begins.
However, those matches took place before Chelsea fired the overmatched Luiz Felipe Scolari and brought in Guus Hiddink. Under Hiddink, Chelsea seem to be playing with more confidence and purpose. Until their loss to Tottenham on March 21 (a game in which Chelsea deserved at least a point), Hiddink had won his first four Premiership matches and had been unbeaten in all competitions. He seems to be getting the best from Michael Ballack and Petr Cech, two players who seemed lost under Scolari, and Didier Drogba seems to be motivated once again. Additionally, Hiddink’s reputation for tactical brilliance has given Chelsea a reason to be optimistic about their chances for multiple trophies.
Nevertheless, it could all be for naught as Liverpool look like they’re peaking at the right time. After riding out a domestic swoon that saw them fall behind Manchester United by 7 points, they’ve managed to turn that deficit to a mere 1 point as of the international break. With dominant victories at Old Trafford against Manchester United (4-1), and at home against Aston Villa (5-0), to go with a 5-0 aggregate smackdown of Real Madrid in the previous round, Liverpool have become the team to beat in Europe. Additionally, their internal turmoil seems to be settling down, as Rafa Benitez finally signed his new contract, Steven Gerrard has (mostly) beaten the rap on his assault case, and the Robbie Keane fiasco is a distant memory. For the first time in a long time, the outlook at Anfield looks bright.
However, we’ve seen how quickly fortunes can change, especially with English teams. All it takes is one poor result and all the good feelings and optimism can go down the drain. If Chelsea can nip an away goal at Anfield (where Liverpool have been less-than-stellar this season), then they could have a huge psychological advantage for the return leg at Stamford Bridge. As we’ve seen in the past, one little away-goal can a huge difference between two rivals as closely matched as these two. Will Liverpool squeak ahead of Chelsea once again? Or will Chelsea prove that last season was no fluke?
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