Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Chelsea v Liverpool, Two Legged Quarter Final, April

First Leg

When Liverpool took the lead within the first few minutes of the kick-off at Anfield, there was little inkling that eleven more would be scored between the two teams over the nearly three hours still left to be played. In years past, that opener from Torres may have been enough for Liverpool to get their ticket for the semi-final, but this season has not been one of known scripts and fittingly there were many many twists in the tale.

Liverpool came off the blocks strong and seemed fluent as their home support warmed up, though they had hardly created so much early pressure to warrant the feeling that a goal was a matter of time. As it was, before the minutes display went into double digits, Arbeloa and Kuyt combined to slip one in for Torres who was dangerously unmarked in the box and once the ball reached his feet, the goal was sealed.

Only after they went behind till Chelsea wake up to the occasion. But wake up they did. Essien as the spoiler, Ballack as the simple passer and Lampard as the creative inspiration began to make the difference visible to the packed Kop and the millions of eyes glued to TV sets. Starting with cutting the supplies out for Gerrard (Essien), to moving the ball into free areas (Ballack) to engineering dangerous attacks (Lampard), Chelsea’s midfield started scripting a comeback.

It would not have taken long for the equalizer to come had Drogba taken his chances but he did not and it was left to backup right back Ivanovic to nod in the crucial away goal (or so we thought) from a corner. The second came in a similar manner and before the night was done, Drogba finally atoned for his previous misses by meeting a cross from the left with immense speed and power and rifling the ball into the net.

It ended 3-1 on the night and it could have been worse for Liverpool. Once Chelsea got into the groove, the Reds looked definitely inferior, thanks in a big way to a missing Mascherano and an off color Xavi Alonso. Gerrard’s imprisonment at the hands of Essien added to many Pool players struggling for inspirational passes choked the fun out of Torres’ game and though he missed one which he should have scored and created another opportunity out of nothing, the marvelous Spaniard failed to have a telling impact on the game.

For Chelsea, Ivanovic was unearthed as a game changer and while his set-piece threat was obvious to note, his pace and strength in defense were also appreciable. Lampard made a couple of stupid defensive decisions but ignore them and he was easily the player who dictated play. Essien nipped Liverpool’s attacking ambitions in the bud, drove forward with fierce power, passed accurately and never gave the ball away. Malouda finally showed himself worthy of an Abramovich shirt but the only disappointment for the Blues was the lackadaisical (yet goal scoring) display by Didier Drogba. He missed chances, made the poorest decisions when he could have created goal scoring chances and showed alarming lack of awareness when off the ball.

Second Leg

With three away goals and the familiar surrounds of London to see off ninety minutes, a suspended John Terry would have been in the mood to hang his boots from the railing and wait for the seemingly inevitable passage to the semi-final at the stroke of the final whistle. At the end of the first half, he would have been desperate to get on the pitch and play his part in a battle to the end.

As it turned out, Liverpool scored four on the night thereby finishing with one away goal more than Chelsea. Chelsea for their part scored four on the night themselves and thus finished with a two goal superiority on aggregate which saw them through to the semi-final. In the ninety minutes where these eight goals were scored, momentum shifted from one camp to another like the swaying of those giant boat shaped joy rides and what the game lacked in defensive quality was more than adequately made up for in terms of entertainment.

Liverpool began strongly just as they had done in the first leg and again before too long they had the first goal. Torres could have had the opener in the first ten minutes but he shot over and it was left to an Aurelio free kick to finally provide the visitors with a life line. This time the pressure had been intense enough and sustained enough for the air of expectation to be heightened and from a long way out, Aurelio embarrassed Cech much in the same way that Ronaldinho had announced himself to the world against David Seaman in the World Cup in Korea and Japan.

Cech had left the near post vacant, prepared to punch out an inviting cross. Aurelio, rated as a brilliant free kick taker on FIFA Manager, chose instead to drive a low ball straight into the unprotected near post on his right and the ball evaded a grasping Petr Cech for the inspirational tonic that Liverpool needed.

A second came a few minutes later through an Alonso penalty and suddenly the Reds were a mere goal away from qualification with almost an hour to go.

It was confounding to see Chelsea’s approach to the game as they discarded the very desire to dominate that had seen them sail through the first leg. They sat too deep and that allowed Mascherano and Alonso all the time in the world to supply their attackers. The injured Gerrard had been replaced by Lucas and though he wasn’t wrecking mayhem, the play was parked in Chelsea’s third for long enough to lead to errors and free kicks in dangerous areas and confusion in the defensive ranks. They did show signs of improvement as the half ended, but one was tempted to think that the Blues’ performance had only one way to go – up.

And up it did go. In fact it went up, up and away with edgy mortals seemingly transformed into super heroes from Krypton in a matter of a half-time dressing down. Anelka, on for Kalou on the right, crossed one from the by line after determinedly holding off the defense and Drogba’s faint touch was enough to cause the ball to deviate off Reina into the goal.

Chelsea then started believing more and began mixing the long balls with strong approach play. Free kick after free kick was won by the Chelsea forwards as their strength and ability to hold on to balls irritated Liverpool and one such free kick after Drogba was fouled, saw Alex score from a bullet that pierced the net from 30 yards out. Then Ballack found space on the edge of the box and as soon as one expected him to shoot, he cleverly played a pass to an unmarked Drogba on the left who cut the ball in for Frank Lampard to easily slot home from a few yards out. It was 3-2 now to Chelsea and could have been worse for Pool, had Ballack not wasted an absolute sitter.

At this stage Chelsea were back to their form from a week ago but the chief protagonist of the night was Drogba, he who had cut such a conflicting figure in Chelsea’s triumph at Anfield. He won every ball played to him, worked hard for the team and was involved in everything that was frightening to Liverpool.

Stung by this reversal, Rafa seemed to throw in the towel with some time to go as Ngog stepped in and Torres stepped out and we will always wonder if Rafa regretted this decision as the final few minutes unfolded. First a wicked deflection saw a Lucas shot land in the back of the net and then a cross was defended poorly to allow Kuyt to head home the goal that put Liverpool one goal away from qualification yet again. With eight minutes to go, the pressure was clearly back again on Chelsea.

There was indeed time for another goal, but the final act of this great entertainer went to the Blue corner as a cross from the right found Lampard through Drogba and Anelka and Chelsea’s most influential player did the job he does so well.

It was madness, it was thrilling, it was unexpected and it was over. For Liverpool, it also ended this year’s European run leaving them with the single prize of the league to aim for. For Chelsea, it ended the period of relative obscurity and they have come roaring back as one of the strongest teams in Europe having left their difficult last days under Scolari way behind. For the rest of us, it begins a long wait for episode six of Chelsea V Liverpool in the Champions League.

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