Thursday, April 16, 2009

Chelsea Trumps Liverpool in Epic Showdown

Chelsea 4 (Drogba 52, Alex 57, Lampard 76, 89)
Liverpool 4 (Aurelio 19, Alonso pen 28, Lucas 81, Kuyt 82)
(Chelsea wins 7-5 on aggregate)

It is this sort of game that reminds you of why you first loved football. It was also a reminder to me on why I love Liverpool FC this much. Thrills, spills, comebacks, joy and disappointments all in a match, how much can you ask for?

Much pressure was on the visitors to perform after a lacklustre 3-1 defeat last week at Anfield. The match coincided with a truly emotional period for the club as they commemorate the death of the 96 fans in Hillsbrough, 20 years ago.

Rally cries were heard and many ‘do it for the 96’ messages were on the forums. And from Liverpool’s first half performance at Stamford Bridge, they really did them proud, invoking the bouncebackability of Istanbul and on so many occasions.

Yet it was just a bridge too far for the Reds.

Needing to 3 goals at Stamford Bridge is a tall order. Ask any football fans and you’ll know that’s highly impossible. Yet even after 4 goals, it was just not enough to take Liverpool through to the semi-finals.

But Rafa Benitez and his men should take heart. While papers and media see the results, the fans know the effort in which they put in and they should still leave the pitch with head held high.

With so many previous results being decided by just a goal or two, nobody in their right mind would’ve thought that a 8 goal thriller is at hand.

Indeed, the game started off in familiarity with both sides playing cautiously and settling down as fast as they could. And it was the away side which took the upperhand and seized the moment.

Without the suspended John Terry and having to survive a scare last Saturday (leading Bolton at home 4-0, they threw away all comfort and put on diapers by conceding 3 in 8 minutes), Chelsea were shaky and Petr Cech was never the goalkeeper he used to be before his head injury.

It was to no surprise that a real life football drama is about to unfold as Fabio Aurelio’s freekick went straight into the bottom corner of the net when everyone thought the Brazilian is going to float a freekick into the congested penalty area.

Fantastic technique and it caught Petr Cech totally off-guard. First blood to the Reds and a comeback was imminent.

Before they could settle their nerves, Chelsea found themselves further in the mire after Spanish referee Luiz Catalejo awarded Liverpool a penalty. 1st leg’s hero, Branislav Ivanovic, turned zero after bringing down Xabi Alonso in the penalty during a freekick.

A slightly harsh decision on most fan’s eyes but it’s one which is the hardest to follow by the law book.

And up steps the player who completed the comeback of all comebacks. Xabi Alonso dispatched it with no doubt. One more goal and it will complete the turnaround.

But Chelsea regrouped and the Reds were unable to find the momentum to finally turn the tide over. Guus Hiddink made a decisive switch even before half time by bringing off the ineffective Salomon Kalou and replacing him with former Liverpool loanee, Nicolas Anelka.

And the Frenchman was to have a positive impact in the game which was a literal rollercoaster ride.

Hiddink admitted later that there were strong words used and emotions gone out of control in his half time team talk. No surprises that Chelsea came out strong and dispels all belief that the Liverpool fans had.

It started off with a bizarre goal as Anelka’s cross was deflected by an onrushing Didier Drogba. His touch was barely seen and minimal at best but it was enough to fool Pepe Reina, who totally missed it and seemingly pushed it into his own net.

That was a lack of concentration there and like Cech, a game to forget.

Alex, the Brazilian defender, then showed his fellow countryman that what he could do, he can do best. A smashing strike from him which gave Reina no chance at all.

Chelsea then capitalized on a wayward Alonso pass and Lampard did what he does best, which is scoring against Liverpool.

3-2 and Liverpool fans must’ve thought it’s all over.

But as a team classed with character and anointed with the spirit of fight backs, Liverpool didn’t lie down and roll over but instead, rallied again and gave themselves hope.

Lucas, who was anonymous and a spectator throughout, took a potshot at goal and it was fortuitously deflected off Michael Essien and into the net. It gave the Reds fan something to cheer about again. Chelsea fans held on to their seats.

Stamford Bridge was rattled further when substitute Albert Riera whipped in an inch perfect cross for Dirk Kuyt to head home .

Again, Liverpool found themselves in the same exact situation as they had in the first half. A goal was all that they need.

But the goal was to end up in the wrong end as Frank Lampard buried all hopes of a Korean drama-esque football soap opera with a fantastic strike in off the post. By then, Liverpool already threw everything they could at Chelsea and were left terribly exposed at the back.

It was just a bridge too far for Liverpool as they crash out of the Champions League but with much pride.

It’s a game full of ups and downs and truly live up to the reputation of the beautiful game. Topsy-turvy and as unpredictable as ‘the ball is round’, it’ll go down the annals of Champions League history, along with Man Utd vs Real Madrid, as one of the greatest games.

True, it was marred by mistakes and nightmarish goalkeeper from both sides, it was all about the fight and the belief that both side held till the end. As surely Rocky Balboa said himself, it’s not over till it’s over.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Champions League Preview: Chelsea vs Liverpool

By Gareth Freeman

If ever there was a definition for an ‘uphill task’ it would have to be this game. Stranger things have happened though and Liverpool’s Champions League dream is not over yet, I’m not going to be betting on them going through but bigger comebacks have been staged and if anyone is capable of a pulling it off it is Rafa’s side.

Before the weekend no one had scored three goals against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge but then Bolton came to town. Granted the Wanderers went 4-0 down before they managed to get their own three goals but it goes too show the Chelski defence is not impenetrable. Liverpool managed to put four past Blackburn themselves and all without Steven Gerrard, Blackburn are by no means the same standard as Chelsea but that game will certainly have given the Reds a boost.

The key to Chelsea’s victory in the last game was Michael Essien man-marking Gerrard, I expect the same to happen again and if Liverpool are too upset the betting odds and progress they’re going to need to combat Essien. If Gerrard is given a free-role and Essien follows him around the pitch I’m sure Rafa will have thought of some way of dealing with it, Benitez is a great tactician and I’m fairly sure he won’t be caught by the same trick twice.

Liverpool might have to rely on other players to create and get forward if Gerrard is marked out the game. Yossi Benayoun is a player who is capable of delivering on the big occasions and he could be the man to ignite Liverpool’s comeback. I’ve been really impressed by the Israeli since the turn of the year and his winner against Fulham in the dying stages showed how well he copes under pressure. Having Mascherano back will also be a massive boost for Liverpool and he was sorely missed in the first leg, hopefully he’ll be able to contain the Chelsea attack as Liverpool can’t afford to concede more than one goal.

Needless to say Liverpool do face a daunting task of having too score three goals at Stamford Bridge. The earlier they can put one away the better and it will set up a great game. My worry is that Chelsea will line up to defend and stop Liverpool going forward rather than attack themselves and just close the game off for the whole 90 minutes. One thing is for sure though, everyone will have to be at the top of their game if Liverpool are too make it through to the semi final stage.