Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Chelsea 4-4 Liverpool (7-5 Agg): Heroic 'Pool Undone at The Death

Liverpool and Chelsea played out a 4-4 draw (7-5 on aggregate), in one of the most entertaining second leg UEFA Champions League Cup ties of all time tonight. The heroic Anfield side pushed their title rivals all the way in what was quite simply an incredible match.

With Chelsea in an almost unassailable 3-1 lead after a phenomenal performance at Anfied in the first leg, they almost threw the match away in a pulsating encounter at Stamford Bridge tonight.

Not sure on how they should approach the game, Chelsea sat back in the early stages and allowed a Steven Gerrard-less Liverpool dictate the tempo of the match. Players who were so eager to get on the ball last week cowered in fear as a professional Liverpool team led by the brilliant Xabi Alonso went to work.

With no Gerrard on the pitch, Rafael Benitez pulled one out of the hat when he went for the trio of Alonso, Lucas, and Mascherano in the Liverpool engine room. The tactic worked a treat as they completely controlled the first half.

Chelsea in comparison were like deer caught in the headlights of an on-coming car. Ballack and Essien were awful, and with them out of the game, there was no supply to a disinterested Drogba, Kalou, and Malouda.

The Anfield giants forced the tempo of the game and Chelsea kept giving the ball away very cheaply, Alonso snapped up every loose ball and his penetrating passes tore open holes in the John Terry-less defence time and time again.

As Liverpool forced the game as they searched for that elusive first, Chelsea began to worry. They had frozen on the big stage, and their big name players all went missing. Only Frank Lampard looked any kind of player, and even his play was totally eclipsed by a dominant Liverpool midfield.

The Pensioners began to resort to giving away silly free kicks as discipline left the normally composed Chelsea side. A stupid free kick was given away on the right hand side of midfield and Fabio Aurelio came across to take it from its innocuous position.

The Chelsea defence set up on the edge of the box to play an offside trap, and in reading a long cross to the far post Petr Cech took a couple of steps too much from his near post.

Aurelio seeing this curled a superb effort towards the near post and before Cech had realised his costly mistake the Liverpool defender was being swamped by his celebrating team mates as Liverpool went one up. (3-2 agg)

The Chelsea defence was all over the place, Alex and Carvalho looked like they had never met each other before never mind played with each other before. Ivanovic was a shadow of him self after last weeks heroics and Dirk Kuyt was giving Ashley Cole all kinds of problems.

Liverpool went two up after the bravest of refereeing decisions. Ivanovic had his arms all over Alonso as Benayoun crossed. It was the correct decision by the referee, and if referees were as brave and made these kind of decisions every week, there would not be the same level of pushing and pulling going on.

Alonso stepped up and slapped the ball to Cech's right after the Chelsea 'keeper had sold himself early and all of a sudden Liverpool only needed one goal to go through. (3-3 agg)

A growingly nervous Chelsea barely made it to half time and the introduction of Nicolas Anelka, 10 minutes before the break did not much of an effect on the flow of the game, so Guus Hiddink needed to get his team in quickly.

Chelsea improved slightly after the break but Liverpool still had the upper hand and were dictating the game. And then within the space of 10 minutes the match took another swerve.

Nicolas Anelka picked up a pass while hugging the touchline way out on the right. But no Liverpool players went to close him down. Anelka kept moving down the line while Aurelio slowly closed him down, the Frenchman drilled a low pass towards the near post where Didier Drogba got the slightest of touches to re-direct it towards the goal (4-3 agg).

The goal was a terrible one to give away, starting with Aurelio's reluctance to close Anelka down, Skrtel playing the percentages and not challenging Drogba, and then Pepe Reina's handling mistake on the goal line.

Minutes later Drogba expertly drew a free kick from Jamie Carragher around 35 yards from goal. Ballack, Lampard and Alex all lined up to take the kick. But it was the Brazilian Alex who hit an unstoppable shot the fired home into the roof of the net. Chelsea back in another unassailable lead... (5-3 agg)

Liverpool were not out yet though. They had come into this match with a snowball's chance in hell and through their professionalism and determination had made a real match of it.

Unbelievably, despite being 5-3 down on aggregate, Liverpool strode on. They only needed two more goals to go through, the same amount of goals that they needed at 4-3 so the game was still on.

With Rafael Benitez's charges still pushing on, Chelsea scored a superb team goal after Ballack's sublime pass on the edge of the box found Drogba in space. His pin point cross was smashed home by home favourite Frank Lampard and Chelsea were in the semi finals...(6-3 agg)

But if there was ever a team to resemble Rocky Balboa, it was Liverpool. Down but not out, they hauled themselves off the canvas yet again, and again they strode forward.

Lucas Leiva—who had been one of Liverpool's lesser players in the second half—picked the ball up around 25 yards from goal. Instead of charging out to deny the Brazilian a shooting chance the Chelsea defence backed off.

And perhaps being well aware that he could give away a penalty, Michael Essien made a curious attempt at blocking the ball. The deflection the ball took off his side taking the ball well away from Cech in the Chelsea goal and all of a sudden Liverpool had a fighting chance again. (6-4 agg)

Again Liverpool drove forward. By this stage of the match, Liverpool were playing without three of the best players. Steven Gerrard sat the game out through injury, while Rafael Benitez, perhaps conceding the game and with one eye on the league had chosen to take both Fernando Torres and Javier Mascherano off.

Yossi Benayoun found himself out on the Chelsea right and his brilliant cross was met by the on rushing Dirk Kuyt who headed home an unstoppable effort, to put the game on a real knife edge. (6-5 agg)

Far from this game being all one way traffic, Chelsea played their part too. Didier Drogba was by this late stage giving Carragher and Skrtel a torrid time. Ballack was becoming more and more an influence. Frank Lampard was everywhere, as the Blues pushed for even more goals.

They got their just rewards as the game reached it's zenith. Lampard, Chelsea's hero all so often this season scored a brilliantly taken goal from 12 yards which thumped in off the far post. (7-5 agg)

It was one goal too many and just too late for this brave, brave Liverpool team.

Rafael Benitez and the Liverpool team in general deserve great credit for making this match the game it was. They could have come to Stamford Bridge and just go through the match for the sake of fulfilling the fixture.

But they pushed and harried and chased when they had no right too, and although the end result was probably the correct one, there is no doubting that it was very harsh on this Liverpool team.

Rafael Benitez has as many fans as he has detractors. There will always be debate, whether it is over his style of management, the way his teams are set up, or his beliefs in certain philosophies of play.

But one thing that can be guaranteed to be agreed upon by all, is that his teams are always honest, hardworking, and never put in less than 100 per cent.

This is the main reason why they are still challenging for the Premier League at this late stage of the season.

Hiddink also deserves great credit. At half time his team were dead and buried. The second half looked a formality. They showed great character and professionalism in the second half when the chips were down, and when they had to perform.

The semi against Barcelona is already starting to look like a classic. It either of the legs are half as good as this game, it will be.

twitter / WillieGannon