This “absorbing” Champions League semi final first leg ended in a 1-1 draw after a 90 minute arm wrestle between Rafa Benitez and Avram Grant, also known as Liverpool and Chelsea. The game was only made more unbearable by the shocking commentary of SBS’ Gary Bloom, who proceeded to cheer when John Terry was booked for his challenge on Javier Mascherano plus the strange refereeing of Austrian official, Konrad Plautz.
Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack were both able to start in midfield, as was Didier Drogba in attack. Paulo Ferreira played right back in the absence of the suspended Michael Essien, whilst Florent Malouda was surprisingly preferred to Salomon Kalou on the left side of the front three.
For Liverpool, the first XI was chosen by Benitez, having fielded his second string against Fulham on the weekend. This meant that Torres came back into the side up front, whilst the greatest midfielder in the universe, Steven Gerrard, was alongside Mascherano and Alonso in midfield. Sami Hyypia was on the bench, Carragher shifting to centre back alongside the mean looking Skrtel; Alvaro Arbeloa started at right back.
The referee made his first imprint on the match as early as the second minute, whistling Jamie Carragher up for a soft foul on Drogba. The Ivorian picked himself up to take the resultant free kick himself, only to hit the wall to the jeers of the Anfield crowd. Steven Gerrard looked to retain his status as greatest midfielder in the universe with a Hollywood effort a few minutes later, though Čech was never to be beaten by such folly.
On 12 minutes, the Chelsea keeper made a far more important stop, combining with Carvalho to thwart the onside Dirk Kuyt. Čech made the save as the Dutchman bore down on goal, Carvalho having raced back to apply pressure on the Liverpool forward and then complete the clearance.
Delightful midfield play from the languid Ballack saw him drift a beautiful ball to Drogba, who had drifted wide right, but his cross was gathered by Reina as the incredibly quiet Joe Cole attempted to apply the finishing touch. On half an hour, it was Čech who again had to make an important stop, this time after Gerrard played in Torres, the Spaniard setting himself to shoot, only for the Chelsea goalkeeper to stand tall and block the shot.
With three minutes remaining until the half time break, a chain of errors led to an almost comedic Liverpool goal. Mr. Plautz again gave a dubious free kick, which Alonso took 15 yards to the right of where the “foul” was given, so he could release Kuyt. After his initial cross was cleared by a flying Terry, Kuyt and Alonso harassed Lampard into giving up possession, before Alonso flicked the ball back to Mascherano. The Argentine lined up another Hollywood effort, but his volley was horribly miscued and instead dropped in the box for Kuyt. In amongst all this, Ryan Babel was retreating from an offside position, Claude Makelélé was there and thereabouts, before Kuyt suddenly popped up again to volley past Čech and give the home side the lead, in front of the Kop. What drama!
Both sides started the second stanza with renewed vigour, showcased by Babel’s audacious effort just before the hour mark, volleying just wide of the far post. Two minutes later, Fabio Aurelio pulled up injured, forcing Benitez into a game changing substitution, as he introduced John Arne Riise in his place. For Chelsea, Salmon Kalou replaced the anonymous Joe Cole. On 66 minutes, Ballack’s flick header at goal was saved by Reina, before a wonderfully worked move ended with Malouda delaying his shot enough for Mascherano to slide in and block.
From 70-80 minutes was a quiet period in the match, notwithstanding the substitution of the lively Ryan Babel, with Yossi Benayoun going on in his place. With 83 minutes played, Ballack took his turn at Hollywood, his long range left footer comfortably held by Reina.
Moments later, Čech produced a save of outstanding quality to deny, you guessed it, the universe’s best midfielder, Steven Gerrard. After bustling past Makelélé, the Liverpool captain unleashed a dipping, swerving volley, that Čech reacted to instantly, flying through the air to magnificently tip the ball over the bar. It was his saves that rendered Benitez’s game changing substitution as effective.
With five minutes remaining, Ballack was replaced by Anelka, as Grant placed all his eggs in one 4-4-2 shaped basket. Benitez was furious as the fourth official indicated that there would be four minutes of added time, Chelsea using every second to their advantage.
Čech made yet another brilliant save in stoppage time, again to deny Torres, before, with ten seconds remaining; Chelsea had a throw-in, in the Liverpool half. Ashley Cole found Kalou in the corner, the Ivorian doing very well to find space before whipping in a world class cross, aimed at Anelka, rushing in at the back stick. Riise though, had also ghosted in, eluding all and sundry to power a header into the top corner, giving Reina no chance. It was a header that any striker would be proud of, as he met the ball sweetly in front of the adoring Kop. Robbie Fowler eat your heart out.
And so it ended, Gary Bloom choking on his words as Anfield was silenced, stunned by the unerring accuracy of Riise’s finishing as Chelsea take a valuable away goal back to Stamford Bridge. For once, Benitez pulled a masterstroke in introducing the Norwegian, whose impact on the tie and Liverpool’s season was devastating. Tactical genius indeed, now, over to you, Mr. Grant.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1) Reina; Arbeloa, Carragher, Skrtel, Aurelio (Riise 61); Alonso, Mascherano; Kuyt, Gerrard, Babel (Benayoun 75); Torres
Unused subs: Itandje, Hyypia, Lucas, Pennant, Crouch.
Chelsea (4-3-3) Čech; Ferreira, Carvalho, Terry (c), A Cole; Ballack (Anelka 85), Makelélé, Lampard; J Cole (Kalou 62), Drogba, Malouda.
Unused subs: Hilario, Belletti, Alex, Mikel, Shevchenko.
Referee Konrad Plautz