A Branislav Ivanovic double helped Chelsea to a 3-1 win over Liverpool at Anfield as the Blues defied pre-match predictions of a cagey meeting in the first leg of the Champions League Quarter-Finals. Ivanovic’s brace hauled Guus Hiddink’s side back into the game following a Fernando Torres opener, and Didier Drogba added some breathing room for the London side with a close-range finish mid-way through the second-half.
The result puts Chelsea in a very strong position ahead of the Stamford Bridge meeting next
Tuesday, with Liverpool needing a big win in SW6 if they are to stand any chance of
stopping the Blues’ march towards the Rome final of the competition.
Hiddink picked Drogba ahead of Nicolas Anelka for the game, and selected the two Michaels, messrs Essien and Ballack, to start in midfield alongside Frank Lampard.
Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool side was missing the influential holding midfielder Javier Mascherano, who was suspended, with the scourge of Anfield, Lucas, taking the Argentinean’s place. Israeli midfielder Yossi Benayoun was left on the bench despite a last-minute winner against Fulham on Saturday. Benitez was also forced to abandon his standard 4-2-3-1 formation with the Reds taking the field as a 4-4-2.
With Liverpool and Chelsea often playing out drab games in many of their previous Champions League meetings, the early exchanges came as some surprise. Both sides looked to attack, and it appeared as if an open game was in the offing. Unfortunately, it was the home side who were to benefit first, breaking the deadlock inside the first six minutes.
A high ball was sent into the Chelsea box and the back-pedalling Alex was unable to properly clear. Instead, his volley looped to the edge of the box and a grateful Dirk Kuyt, who fed Alvaro Arbeloa on the right. His whipped cross found an unmarked Fernando Torres just outside the six-yard box, who volleyed past a deep Blues defence and into the back of Petr Cech’s net. First blood to Liverpool.
But Chelsea’s intentions were plain to see as they almost immediately hit back. Salomon Kalou robbed Fabio Aurelio and slid a through ball right into the path of Drogba. The Ivorian was in the box unmarked, but didn’t look up, and as a result, didn’t see the onrushing Pepé Reina who blocked his effort.
Drogba and co. continued to push for an equaliser however, with both Lampard and Alex hitting the wall with long-range free-kicks. Although they were – quite literally – long shots, the next chance was more of a clean cut opportunity. At least it should have been.
An incisive Ballack ball found its way perfectly into the path of Drogba, again in the box, again through on goal. Again, he fluffed it, sending the ball despairingly over the bar.
Although Torres and Arbeloa had half chances, it was still Chelsea who looked the likelier side to find the back of the net. Indeed, with a little over five minutes left of the first-half, they did, albeit from a rather unlikely source.
Florent Malouda sent in a corner, one of nine the Blues had on the night, which found the head of the totally unmarked Branislav Ivanovic who powered home. It was what Chelsea had deserved, and proved to be the sign of things to come.
The second period began where the first left off; open, entertaining, and promising endless possibilities. The anonymous Steven Gerrard – expertly marshalled by Essien all night long – shot wide five minutes in but his side rarely threatened at all after this half chance. Drogba again tormented the Liverpool defence, breaking into the box and spinning a shot past Reina and almost across the line before Jamie Carragher cleared with just yards between the ball and the net.
In truth, Drogba could have done better with some earlier chances but this one could be attributed to bad luck. Ivanovic, however, must have been carrying a whole host of lucky charms as he again went one better than the Chelsea striker.
It was almost a carbon copy of his first, only this time it was Lampard’s delivery. Unmarked again, the Serbian defender headed home to put the Blues ahead on the night, and add another valuable away goal to the scoreline.
Chelsea were flying now, and it wasn’t long before the Blues’ attacking dominance was conveyed on the scoreboard. Ballack found the lively Malouda on the left, and the Frenchman drilled the ball across the box. An out-stretched boot met it in the middle and prodded past Reina for 3-1. Who scored? Who else! Drogba bagged the goal his night’s play had deserved. Chelsea were firmly in the driving seat and the game hadn’t even passed the 70 minute mark yet.
Benitez threw on Benayoun as the home side desperately looked for a way back into the game, but despite the match opening up again, Hiddink’s men always looked comfortable.
Cech was forced into saves from Gerrard, Torres and Alonso – the Spanish midfielder testing the Chelsea ‘keeper from range and winning a corner – but it proved to be too little, too late for Benitez’s boys.
As the final whistle sounded on an eerily quiet Anfield, a couple of points had been proved. First of all, it is possible to silence the Scousers. Secondly, we are well and truly in contention for the Champions League crown.
Although there were some dampeners on what had been a momentous evening – John Terry’s booking which rules him out for the second-leg and likely semi-final opponents Barcelona’s demolition job over Bayern Munich in the Nou Camp – this will go down as one of those nights where we took on the world, flexed our muscles, and left all in front of us trailing in our wake. We conquered Anfield tonight; Stamford Bridge awaits next Tuesday.