How has it been a year already? It seems like only yesterday. It’s still vivid. It’s still intense. It’s always going to be memorable.
April 30th 2008, Stamford Bridge. The second-leg of a Champions League semi-final encounter with Liverpool, the side who seemed to have an unfair advantage over Chelsea in these kinds of matches. Be it luck, or skill, or even conspiracy, they had something. Something which always stood between the Blues and a two-legged win.
They almost had the advantage in the first-leg at Anfield, but a late John Arne Riise own-goal saved Chelsea from defeat.
Of course, what happened from then on is probably ingrained in the minds of Blues fans everywhere. The win, then the final, then the defeat. But it is not those consequential happenings which I’m writing about here, it is more of a nod towards a key individual element.
When I think about what happened from the first whistle at the Bridge to the last penalty kick in Moscow, it runs like a fuzzy amalgamated highlights package in the mind.
Drogba’s goal, Drogba’s celebration, Kalou offside in the build-up? Who cares? Torres’ equaliser, the curse continues, Drogba’s winner, unbelievable! Flags waving, crowd cheering, onto Moscow. Ronaldo’s opener, Lampard’s leveller, get in! Penalty kicks, Terry’s slip, Anelka blows it. Game over.
Now the sharper-eyed readers may have noticed the missing piece of this story. To mention it in passing would be doing it a huge injustice. Because of those memories, only one really sticks in the mind and stops me in my tracks. Sure, there’s the endless ‘what if’s’ surrounding Terry’s spot-kick, but they come to nothing.
Instead, it’s the penalty in the semi-final which recaptures everything about football, everything about Chelsea, everything about Frank Lampard. It’s what brings the emotions flooding back.
To a casual observer, it was just a penalty. It put Chelsea 2-1 up in the game, 3-2 on aggregate, but still, it was just a penalty. It was Drogba’s second of the match which clinched the win, with Liverpool’s Ryan Babel bagging a late goal which could have booked the Reds’ ticket to Russia were it not for the Ivorian’s earlier intervention.
But to us, the penalty meant much, much more. For Lampard, it cannot be measured, but the celebration said it all.
Six days before the game, Lampard’s mother, Pat, lost her battle with pneumonia. The superhuman Frank Lampard was revealed to be a mere mortal just like us, and in mourning, Lampard missed the league win over Manchester United, in which Michael Ballack starred, bagging a brace including a typically composed penalty. Question marks over Lampard’s eligibility for the Liverpool tie remained. Would he play? If he did, where would his head be? Would it be beneficial for him to take the field?
Sporting a black armband, Lampard played. And he played like he does in every game; typically dynamic, vehemently passionate, and exceptionally influential.
Amongst the nerves and the fervour in the crowd, it is impossible to imagine what was going on in the head of the midfield lynchpin, but in the first-half of extra-time, something happened which we were all able to comprehend, which we all shared in.
With the scores level at 1-1, hence the continuation of the game beyond the already unbearably tense 90 minutes, Liverpool defender Sami Hyypia brought down Ballack in the box. Clumsy, unfortunate, but a penalty nonetheless.
And it is here where my mind’s eye takes over.
Despite the fact that I have only seen it on television or the internet once or twice at the most, I still see it all unfolding, as clear as day. Watching on from the West Stand, thinking that it must be Ballack’s penalty to take. He wins it, he takes it, he scores, we’re winning.
But no. Inconceivably, it is Lampard’s hands on the ball. It is Lampard placing it down on the spot. It is Lampard who is walking back to the edge of the box, turning to face Liverpool goalkeeper Pepé Reina, the goal the Spaniard is guarding, and the net which could bring a hint of escape for a tortured soul.
In the crowd, flags stop waving, in my mind a hush descends, and for that moment, time stops. In that period of eternity, we may have all been thinking the same thing. What if he misses? The intensity of the situation meant that for once, it mattered little to the club whether he missed, but rather his own state of mind and wellbeing. Of course, a goal could take us to the final, but a goal could also bring an enormous release for Lampard.
The years seemed to tick by as Lampard waited for referee Roberto Rosetti to whistle. When the Italian finally did, Lampard took a step forward. Four or five followed, then the strike. Reina goes the wrong way, the ball slams into the bottom corner of the goal, with the momentum almost returning it back to where Lampard was standing when he took it.
Of course, he’s not there anymore. Goal scored, job done, message sent, he’s sprinted towards the corner flag, pursued by his team-mates. The armband is off, kissed and held firmly to his lips as he falls to the turf on his knees.
I must admit however, I didn’t see this bit. As soon as the goal was scored, I could not help it. The emotion hit me, I welled up, and I took my eyes away from the action, looking up at the night sky. Thinking about it today still brings a similar reaction, as does watching it again on YouTube.
And now, surprise surprise, the Champions League draw has again thrown up a meeting between Liverpool and Chelsea. By the time of reading, the games could have come and gone, with more talking points and no doubt a little controversy.
But will anything ever match the drama and pure emotion of that Frank Lampard penalty? It would take something pretty special that’s for sure.