Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Liverpool 1-3 Chelsea: 'Pool Torn Asunder by Pensioners at Fortress Anfield

A headed double from Branislav Ivanovic and a poacher's finish, after a superb team move by Didier Drogba, put Liverpool to the sword at Anfield tonight, as Chelsea came from one down to stun Liverpool with a 3-1 victory. The result means the Pensioners are now firm favorites to meet Barcelona in the semifinals of the Champions League...

Chelsea put in their best team performance in years to leave Liverpool stunned at Anfield tonight. After dominating the first 15 minutes and going one up through Fernando Torres, Liverpool found themselves on the backfoot as Chelsea dominated the Anfield side for the rest of the match.

The resulting 3-1 scoreline was hugely deserved and could have been more, if not for some wayward finishing by Didier Drogba. Liverpool's midfield—which has been the foundation for the team's high position this year—was completely outplayed and out-classed by Chelsea heavyweights Frank Lampard, Michael Ballack, and an outstanding Michael Essien.

The last time the two managers met was 10 years ago, as Guus Hiddink—then in charge of Real Madrid—beat Rafael Benitez's Extremadura 5-1. Since then, there has been much water under the bridge, and while Hiddink travelled the world enhancing his coaching reputation, Rafael Benitez worked tirelessly to become a master tactician.

So it was with some surprise that tactics seemed to go out the window tonight.

Liverpool started the quicker, as they have in all of their matches since their stunning win over Real Madrid in the last round. With Chelsea seemingly feeling their opponents out, the Reds went straight for the jugular and got their just rewards on six minutes after Fernando Torres swept home Arbeloa's cross after he was sent free by Dirk Kuyt's superb reverse flick.

But their domination was to end sooner than they expected. Chelsea began to exert pressure in midfield. Lampard and Essien hunted in packs, and it became all too apparent all too quickly that Lucas was out of his depth and that the Reds missed Javier Mascherano badly.

Jamie Carragher has always struggled against players with power, and with Drogba in irrepressible form tonight, it was no different. The Ivorian went close time and time again, as he bullied Carragher and Skrtel around.

Chelsea got their just rewards with seven minutes remaining in the first half from an unlikely source. Branislav Ivanovic has been much maligned by the Chelsea faithful this year, and before last weekend's win over Newcastle, his last league action was last year.

But the Pensioners' fans will be singing songs about him for years now, after he exposed Liverpool's zonal defensive system by heading in not once but twice from unmarked positions to give Chelsea a deserved lead.

The first came after Gerrard had blocked Kalou's attempted cross and, from the inswinging corner, he headed home unimpeded from six yards to make the scores level.

Chelsea kept pushing for the second and, with Liverpool resembling a punch-drunk boxer, the referee's whistle for halftime came as a welcome respite.

Benitez must have said something at halftime, because Liverpool tore out of the traps again, an otherwise quiet Torres forcing a smart save from Cech in the opening minutes, but not before Jamie Carragher's fantastic goal line clearance from Drogba.

Normal service was to resume minutes later as Chelsea regained their lost foothold. Chelsea have no chance of winning the league at this stage of the season, so this game against Liverpool represented the club's last real attempt at claiming a massive honour.

With that in mind, the players, many of whom will be leaving in the summer, played like men possessed. Didier Drogba's league form has been indifferent, but he has been brilliant in the Champions League since his return.

Michael Ballack offered real guile in a perfectly balanced trio in midfield. Essien gave power and strength, while the superb Frank Lampard gave leadership, honesty, and a drive that never let up.

Chelsea cruelly exposed all of Liverpool's frailties, and the match was a stark contrast to the classic battle at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season where Liverpool dominated Chelsea in every area of the pitch.

All too often this season Liverpool has relied on the brilliance of Steven Gerrard to get them out of trouble, and this game was no different. But the Liverpool captain was a shadow of the player he usually is, and with him being pushed out of the game so with him went Liverpool's best chance of winning the game.

Branislav Ivanovic added his second goal on the hour mark from another corner, as Chelse assumed the ascendancy their play so richly deserved.

Heads began to drop in the red shirts of Liverpool as they realised that there was to be no taming of this Chelsea tiger tonight, and a third goal came as no surpise to the rampaging away team.

Lampard, Cole, Essien, and Malouda all played their part before Michael Ballack's pass through the eye of a needle sent Malouda free on the left. His first time cross was met by none other than Drogba who had begun his run from right midfield when Ballack picked the decisive pass up.

The Ivorian smashed the ball home from six yards to silence the Kop for the first time this season, and with it, Chelsea attained an almost unassailable lead going into next week's second leg.

The match was all but over and, as Rafa looked at his bench, he wondered how to change things around. He could have been forgiven for previous sins of moving players, like Robbie Keane and Jermaine Pennant, on.

With no one capable of swinging the game from the bench, Chelsea closed the game out in the professional manner you would expect of a team who have won league titles and gone close to winning the Champions League in previous seasons.

Chelsea was brilliant tonight. They swept aside the would be champions with relative ease which was quite surprising, given Liverpool's recent form. It is now hard to look past a Chelsea-Barcelona semifinal, after the Catalan side swept to a 4-0 victory over Bayern Munich. Thierry Henry and Lionel Messi were the chief architects behind an incredible first half performance.

The plus side for Liverpool, if they do get knocked out at this stage, is that they will have no more distractions between now and the end of the season. Therefore, Rafael Benitez should, in theory, be able to lift his players' morale after this untimely blip.

twitter / WillieGannon