Liverpool book European Cup position in Athens
Last night was a nervy night for me, possibly for a number of LFC fans. Chelsea were well documented to have had control and enough chances to have extended their 1-0 lead at Stamford Bridge last week as Liverpool failed to react enough in the first half of that leg but responded more in the second. A number of words were passed to the media from the coaches of both sides which perhaps is par to the course but I felt it was insulting for Jose Mourinho to suggest Liverpool players would harass and entice Didier Drogba into conduct that would have him booked and therefore suspended from the 2nd leg. Dirk Kuyt was mentioned to have deliberately got himself booked in the quarter-finals 1st leg against PSV to miss what appeared to be an already won quarter-final 2nd leg and therefore emerge into the semis' with a clean record. Rafael Benitez conceded Liverpool did not control the tie:
"I think it was two different parts [last week] - the first half we were not controlling, the second half a little bit better. We gave them chances on the counter-attack and we were giving the ball away, then they were playing counter-attack.
"We were running back and we needed to be more compact. We were not doing these things in the first half.
"I think you need to score just one goal and see what happens. If we score two, as in the league, we will be there."
But crucially the words pale in comparison to the objective ahead, to win the semi. Chelsea arrived at Anfield with their advantage and minus Ricardo Carvalho, Andriy Shevchenko, Michael Ballack and potentially aiming to right the wrong they felt during this exact fixture, venue and month in 2005. Liverpool rested seven players at the weekend in preparation while Chelsea were held out to a home draw by Bolton. The game was not one for high drama, numerous chances and shots on target and may have therefore fallen flat from the image conveyed from the pre-match build up in the media. But what it did contain was tension, for as determined as Chelsea have been this season since the league defeat at Anfield, since which they have remained unbeaten, Liverpool have been more cunning at home and with Rafael Benitez at the helm, he is being renowned for his tactics.
With chances few and far between both sides, Liverpool took the lead after Joe Cole had fouled Steven Gerrard on the left and with the Liverpool captain poised over the kick alongside Bolo Zenden, the expectancy was it would curl over towards perhaps Peter Crouch. Instead Gerrard passed the ball swiftly across the penalty box edge where Daniel Agger met it with a first time left foot touch that curled it inside Petr Cech's near post. A smart freekick that was rewarded.
Didier Drogba was put through by Jon Obi Mikel on the right and had his shot blocked by Pepe Reina. Ashley Cole ran down the left and crossed for Drogba only for Jamie Carragher to intervene. Michael Essien in central defence blocked out Dirk Kuyt, Cech saved with his feet from Crouch's header, Reina had to come to punch clear over Drogba as Frank Lampard curled over a freekick, Kuyt saw a firm header hit the crossbar and had a goal disallowed over an offside decision which I felt was just right. Since Agger's goal, chances had been created but on target they were lacking that extra quality. Chelsea had ended the first half and begun the second with possession with Liverpool then soaking up their attacks and going on the counter.
Surprisingly the tie went into penalties even after extra-time. TV cameras showed Mourinho consulting briefly with Arjen Robben as if to say 'Are you up to take one?', with Robben potentially replying 'Sure, why not, if no one else will.' Chelsea won the toss and chose the Anfield Road End for the penalties, as there were dual support there. Zenden stepped up first to deposit past Cech, and then Robben followed his compatriot only to have his effort saved. Xabi Alonso scored Liverpool's second with Lampard slamming past Reina. Gerrard sent Cech the wrong way and then Geremi stepped up to also have his effort saved, meaning that Liverpool's next spot-kick would put the Reds through to their second European Cup final in three years.
That responsibility was down to Kuyt and as Cech dived the right away, the Dutchman struck wide of Cech's right hand to put Liverpool on their way to a booking in Athens on 23rd May against either AC Milan or Manchester United. It wasn't a fantastic match to even rival that of Man Utd v AC Milan last week, but it brought tension and attacking play from two sides who have recent history between them and a tight game which seemed so tight as to inevitably end in penalties.