Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Chelsea 3-2 Liverpool (CL semi final, AET)

We were always going to be up against it after last week's disappointing draw, and so it proved - we were good enough to force the tie to extra time (which was more than I really expected, given our poor recent record at Stamford Bridge), but sadly then conceded a couple of quick goals.

It's hard to say what went wrong. Benitez's pre-match criticism of Drogba may have been ill-advised - he really was a disgrace in the first leg, but I'd rather have him diving than riled up the way he was tonight. I remember the way he destroyed us in the UEFA cup (playing for Marseille) yet, like Heskey, I think he's too often a sleeping giant given his pace and strength - tonight we saw the striker he can be when effective.

Even so, I think maybe we could have handled him had we not lost Skrtel to an early injury. Already without Agger and Aurelio, it was a big ask, even if few teams have a fourth choice centre back fit to lace Hyypia's boots. More problematic than the change of personel was that it cost us one of our substitutions, denying us the necessary attacking threat (Crouch) and fresh legs going into extra time.

Chelsea had the better of the first half and, despite a touch of off-side about their goal, I couldn't really complain. We came back well in the second, but I did wonder for a while where the goal was coming from. I was just wondering whether it should be Alonso or Benayoun to make way for an attacking change (Pennant or Babel) and thinking that Benayoun - though he'd been quiet - was the kind of player who could make a goal out of nothing, when he ghosted past several Chelsea players on the edge of the box and unleashed Torres for the equaliser.

At this point I hoped the momentum was with Liverpool and, indeed, I think it probably was, but there was to be no further breakthrough in normal time - so, as many had predicted, with scores at 1-1 (2-2 aggregate) the match went to extra time. Sadly, Chelsea seized the initiative - Essien had already had a goal ruled out for off-side before Drogba struck and then Lampard converted a penalty, all in the space of about five minutes and the tie was effectively over.

If there was any hope of recovering the two goal deficit, it was soon over when Torres was withdrawn - apparently suffering a tight hamstring. To be honest, I'd have been inclined to leave him on longer, thinking that half-fit he's still worth having, and there was little lost if he picked up an injury with our season heading to a premature end. Sadly, this left us a bit shapeless up front too.

Babel's long range shot past Cech restored a little hope, but it wasn't to be. I think Hyypia - though he couldn't complain about conceding an uncharacteristically clumsy penalty for chopping down Ballack - could feel slightly aggrieved not to have won one of his own. I also think we probably should have had more than a minute's added time (since extra time included at least two substitutions, a disllowed goal, a converted penalty and two further goals) with which to search for the equaliser that would take us to penalties. At the end of the day, I think we were at least as good as Chelsea over the two legs (I'd have been disappointed with a 1-0 lead from the first), but there clearly isn't much between the two teams so - after we got the better of them in 2005, 2006 and 2007 - I suppose it's only fair that they won through this time. I guess we might as well toss a coin in future...

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