Barcelona v Chelsea.
The sentence no Liverpool fan wanted to hear this morning, even though most expected to. So the European season for Liverpool has ended prior to the semi final stage for only the second time in five seasons after last night’s incredible 4-4 draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, but the memories of this tie will surely live long in the memory.
Cynics, myself included, had debated the merits of Rafael Benitez sending a weakened side down to London for this second leg. The realists had surmised that the three away goals scored by Guus Hiddink’s side a week ago would be enough to see them safely into the last four.
But since when have cynics and realists ruled football? Liverpool were two up before half an hour had been played, and, despite sucker punches from Didier Drogba, Alex & Frank Lampard after half time, still found themselves needing only one more goal to snatch the tie with seven minutes remaining.
That they did owed as much to Chelsea’s fallibility as it did Liverpool’s spirit, but neither should be underestimated. Denied the services of Steven Gerrard, Liverpool’s trio of holding midfielders did a sterling job. One wonders what impact the presence of Javier Mascherano in the first leg might have had on proceedings. Liverpool were lively from the outset, their tempo ensured the game resembled an Anfield encounter, rather than a Stamford Bridge one.
In these sort of circumstances, an early goal is invariably required, and whilst Fabio Aurelio’s “Gary McAllister” free kick took nineteen minutes to arrive (for Paul Gerrard 2001, now read Petr Cech 2009), the seeds of doubt had already began to blossom in Chelsea’s minds.
Cech was at his worst, a flailing save from Dirk Kuyt was about the only thing he got right all evening. By the time he had been comprehensively beaten by Xabi Alonso’s penalty nine minutes later, following a foul by Branislav Ivanovic on the Spaniard, full on panic was on the verge of infesting those in blue. Kuyt’s header threatened a third, whilst Cech made a hash of a routine take and was bailed out by Michael Essien.
Level on aggregate at half time was just about as good as it could have been dreamt by Liverpool fans, in truth the half time whistle was greeted with a touch of dismay by the travelling support, who sensed that the interval may give Chelsea a chance to regroup and take some of the momentum away from the visitors. And so it proved.
Pepe Reina has been outstanding for Liverpool this season, but within six minutes of the restart he had given Chelsea a nerve-settling goal. His balance was off as he awaited Nicolas Anelka’s well-worked cross from the right, Drogba was determined and got a smart toe on the ball at the near post, and the Spaniard could not adjust in time to take the ball cleanly, fumbling it over the line. It woke the Stamford Bridge crowd up, and some of their players too.
Within minutes Alex had produced one of his trademark blasts from a free kick and the home side were in the comfort zone again. Even more so when Frank Lampard, professionalism personified and a player who it is genuinely impossible not to respect, steered in Drogba’s superb cut back for 3-2. Liverpool’s spirit seemed to have been dampened, three goals needed in fourteen minutes was do-able, but unlikely.
Not that unlikely however, when Lucas’ deflected drive and Kuyt’s close range header had both beaten Cech. Liverpool now were within one goal again, with seven crucial minutes on the clock. Cech was still shaking, racing from his line rashly and thanking his lucky stars that Aurelio was unable to pick out either net or team-mate from the left wing. Suddenly Chelsea were trembling again. Lampard maintained control though and it, fittingly, was he who whipped Chelsea’s fourth of the evening past Reina from Anelka’s pull back to make the aggregate score 7-5.
That’s right. 7-5. Or as the BBC’s antiquated “Vidi-Printer” might have put it “7-5 (seven-five)”. If there were gasps of derision from the purists when Red was drawn to play Blue in the quarter-final draw, they were proven unfounded here. Ok so Alan Hansen & Ron Harris may cringe in disbelief at the defending on show, Ray Clemence & Peter Bonetti may shudder at a couple of the goalkeeping errors, but for entertainment, UEFA could not have asked for a better tie to advertise their showpiece competition.
Liverpool deserve enormous credit, it isn’t often you hear fans commenting on being proud of their team after a European exit at the hands of a domestic rival, but Reds had pride in abundance last night. Not many sides will score four at Stamford Bridge on a European night, and maybe the Gerrard factor will be played down a little now by our good friends in the press.
Chelsea on the other hand are the victors, and deservedly so over the two legs, their display at Anfield alone ensured their right to face Pep Guardiola’s Harlem Globetrotters in the semi finals. They showed fighting spirit of their own to battle back from the brink of collapse to overcome Benitez’s machine in what will surely go down as one of the Champions League’s all time great ties.
The only shame here is that the winners did not secure a spot in the final.
Also See: The history of the Liverpool – Chelsea rivalry.