How, then, do you hype up a match that most commentators have already decided is a done deal? It’s a serious dilemma for ITV Sport. Liverpool vs Chelsea is, according to the learned hacks of the English press, all over. Chelsea won the first leg at Anfield by three goals to one, an accomplished performance that stunned Merseyside silent (apart from the faint sound of guffawing from the direction of Goodison Park) and seemed to further cement the reputation of Guus Hiddink. Hiddink’s involvement at Stamford Bridge beyond the end of this season has become one of the more intriguing sub-plots of this Premier League season. Will he stay or won’t he? Will Roman Abramovich pull out all of the stops to lure him away from the lucrative Russian national team job? Will Guus – as he has promised on several occasions – stay and finish off the job of trying to qualify them for the 2010 World Cup Finals, or will he succumb to the lure of Premier League riches?
For now, though, this is going to be a procession, isn’t it? The papers have been full of Steven Gerrard’s absence and how this will be the undoing of Liverpool. Liverpool need to score three goals at Stamford Bridge to get through to the semi-finals, and Chelsea’s defence is, we’re reliably informed by Clive Tyldesley, “the best in the Premier League”. It would appear that Clive has given up on the non-committed this evening. References to “that night in Istanbul” have presumably been banned on the grounds that lightning seldom strikes the same place twice and, by the sounds of it, there is a degree of concern that even the dedicated fans won’t last the course. It takes him less than two minutes to remind the viewing audience that, in practical terms, it won’t make any difference if Chelsea score first as Liverpool still need to score three to get through. It’s a kind of televisual pre-emptive pleading. “Please don’t switch over if Chelsea score”, Clive is saying, presumably mindful of the fact that even the most hardened football watchers will be less than enthused to even turn over to ITV4, where Bayern Munich have to make the best of trying to recover some dignity from their four goal mauling at the Nou Camp last week.
He needn’t worry. Liverpool have two modes. The first is that of a well-oiled machine, one which surprises the casual viewer with how much it’s capable of. The second is rather like “Emmerdale” – inexplicably popular and successful, but strangely likeable. It’s difficult, for example, not to warm to Xabi Alonso, who looks like his face has been designed by a Spanish cartoonist from the 1970s. They’re in the latter mode tonight, and come screaming out of the blocks against a Chelsea side that, one suspects, have read one too many newspaper articles on the subject of their own imperiousness. Inside ten minutes, some smart passing releases Fernando Torres, who shoots over when he probably should have scored. The respite for Chelsea is short lived and, when it comes, it makes a monkey out of Petr Cech. A seemingly innocuous looking free kick on the right sees Cech edge nervously out from his line in anticipation of a cross. Fabio Aurelio spots the mistake and drives the ball low into the corner of the net at the near post.
Suddenly, the tie is on and even a crusty old cynic like me is dragged into the drama of it all. Liverpool are sitting comfortable, passing at high speed and not giving Chelsea to settle and regain their composure. Nine minutes after the first goal, Liverpool get a penalty. A free kick into the Chelsea penalty area sees Branislav Ivanovic pull Xabi Alonso back, and the referee spots it. Alonso picks himself up, dusts himself down and sends Cech the wrong way from the penalty spot to double their lead. All the hard work of the first leg has been reduced to a single, solitary away goal. For the rest of the half, it’s as much as Chelsea can do to keep the ball from their own penalty area. Chelsea conceded three goals at home against Bolton Wanderers on Saturday, and it feels as if this has rattled their defensive confidence. Cech, in particular, looks constantly rattled. He comes unconvincingly for crosses and leaves a five yard gap between him and his back line every time Liverpool have a set piece. Just before half-time, he does reasonably well to push away a long rang shot from Dirk Kuyt, but seconds later comes for another cross and completely misses the ball. Half-time can’t come soon enough for Chelsea, who are lucky not to be three or four down.
The second half begins much as the first half finished. Cech comes racing out of his goal to collect a reasonably harmless looking throughball toward Lucas, but doesn’t get to the ball first. The resulting cross is headed just wide. It seems like it’s only a matter of time before Liverpool go on to further extend their lead but then, from nothing, Chelsea drag themselves back into the tie. First, Nicolas Anelka gets a bit of space on the right hand side and crosses low towards Didier Drogba. Drogba’s touch is only slight, but Pepe Reina is completely unprepared for the touch and momentarily juggles the ball like a fishmonger wrestling an angry salmon before it squirms from his grasp and over the line. Stamford Bridge is lifted, and for all of Tyldesley’s protestations that “this doesn’t make any difference to what Liverpool have to do”, this is different. For the first time tonight, Liverpool are on the back foot, and five minutes later comes the what another pivotal moment. Chelsea win a free kick thirty yards from goal, and Alex absolutely leathers the ball around the wall and into the top corner of the net. Reina gets a hand to it, but it was just about unstoppable.
At 2-2, Chelsea’s two goal advantage has been restored. Liverpool have lost a few degrees of their fluency and Chelsea have gained a little of theirs. Still, though, there are chances for either side to swing the match still further in their direction. Mascherano’s long range shot is fumbled by Cech, but the angle is too tight for Benayoun on the follow-up to shoot or put over a meaningful cross. At the other end, gaps are starting to show in the Liverpool defence as Chelsea start to look more fluid. Drogba gets away on the right and pulls the ball back for Michael Ballack, but Ballack opts to try and place the ball rather than driving it and Reina makes a comfortable save. Time, now, is running out for Liverpool. Fernando Torres curls the ball a couple of feet wide of Cech’s left hand post, but it’s starting to look as if they’re running out of steam. A second goal might reignite them, but the passes are starting to get a little bit sloppier and the shots look more and more rushed.
Then, with fifteen minutes left to play, what should be the killer blow, and a move which sums up the route that the second half of this match has taken. Alonso makes a dog’s breakfast of a simple pass out of defence, passing the ball straight to Michael Ballack. Ballack releases Didier Drogba on the left, and his low cross is turned in by Frank Lampard. “Two nil and you fucked it up” sings Stamford Bridge, having evidently forgotten that they booed their own players off the pitch at half-time. The triumphalism lasts barely five minutes. Lucas shoots from long range and the ball bounces off Michael Essien, wrongfooting Cech and bouncing Liverpool level again. Then, the tension raises yet again, as Albert Rieira gets to the byline and crosses for Dirk Kuyt to head Liverpool 4-3 in front. This time, though, there is no route back into the game for Liverpool. With three minutes left to play, Frank Lampard curls the ball in from the edge of the penalty area, off one post, then the other, and finally, agonizingly over the line. There’s still time for Cech to flap at another cross, allowing David N’Gog to shoot – Essien throws himself across the goal to head the ball off the line.
And that’s it. A remarkable, absorbing, insane, almost illogical game comes to an end with Chelsea having won their way through to the semi-finals. It’s a match that has thrown up more “what ifs” than I can remember. What if Reina hadn’t fumbled Drogba’s deflection? What if Liverpool had added that third goal before half time? Even for those of us that remain cynical about the merits of the Premier League and the Champions League have to concede that these two clubs have played out one of the great matches of the season. Chelsea were uncharacteristically sloppy, yet their mental strength in holding things together when 2-0 down at half-time means that they do deserve to have won this tie. Liverpool, defeated in a match that they could have turned around, can at least take heart from the fact that they have again taken part in a match that played out like pure theatre. Can they now lift themselves for the rest of the Premier League season?