Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Champions League Preview: LiverpooL vs. Chelsea

The first of this week’s Champions League semi-finals is an all-English affair and sees Liverpool and Chelsea go head-to-head at this stage of the competition for the third time in four years. Can the Blues exact revenge for the previous two defeats?

Things are never calm at Chelsea football club and this has been made abundantly clear in the past week.

Monday night at Stamford Bridge – the Blues are 1-0 up and Emile Heskey pops up to net Wigan Athletic a late equaliser. Chelsea are done for, the title is United’s, Grant is a loser and it’s all his fault.

Fast forward to Thursday, where up on Merseyside Michael Essien snatches the all-important goal as Chelsea earn a vital win at Everton. By Saturday, United’s inability to claim all three points at Blackburn means the gap is once again three points. Avram Grant might have grumped his way through the post-match Press conference, but suddenly this is the guy who could lead Chelsea to an historic league and European Cup double.

This is the Blues’ fourth trip to the Champions League semi-finals in five years. They have yet to reach the final but it is perhaps fitting that they one again face Liverpool, twice the architects of Chelsea’s European demise at this stage.

With the showpiece event scheduled for Roman Abramovich’s homeland and the bitterness of 2005 and 2007 still evident in the Blues camp, there has never been a greater incentive to exact revenge. Avram Grant’s side made light work of Fenerbahçe at Stamford Bridge but stumbled to a defeat in the away leg. A similar result at Anfield is not an option against a Reds side who will likely not roll over like the Turks did in London.

Chelsea, meanwhile, know that they need to score on this trip to Anfield. They’ve failed to do so on any of their previous three Champions League games there, and recent profligacy in front of goal will be a concern. In cagey cup ties you must take what few chances you get.

Liverpool go into the semi-final as outsiders with the bookmakers and behind Chelsea in the league. Will that worry the Reds? It was exactly the same in 2005 and 2007. Blues fans have often pointed to Liverpool’s fortune in Europe (lucky penalties, goals that never were) but when you’ve reached two finals in three years and dispatched the likes of Arsenal, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Barcelona and Juventus – as well as Chelsea twice – you must be doing something right.

Going into this first leg it’s fair to say that the psychological advantage lies with Liverpool, not only because of what has transpired in years past, but also because of results in Europe this season. The confidence gained from eliminating Inter and Arsenal, where three games were won and one was drawn, will be far greater than that the Blues can yield from overcoming the relative minnows of Olympiacos and Fenerbahçe.

After a close call earlier in the campaign, the European mentality at Anfield is alive and well. Belief, tradition and a useful run of form (eleven wins and just one defeat in the last 14 games) give Rafa Benítez’ side every confidence of ruining Abramovich’s dream for a third time.

This Liverpool side is stronger than those fielded on those previous occasions, but this remains the Reds’ toughest task yet thanks to the second leg taking place down in London. The atmosphere at Anfield will still be tremendous, but without knowing their Stamford Bridge fate the Reds will not so easily be able to sit on a 1-0 or 0-0 like in those previous encounters. The search for a healthy home win carries with it the danger of exposure at the back, but that is a risk Liverpool must take: Stamford Bridge has been a miserable away ground for 20 years.



Fulham - Liverpool 0 - 2 19/04/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Liverpool - Blackburn 3 - 1 13/04/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Liverpool - Arsenal 4 - 2 08/04/2008 CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
Arsenal - Liverpool 1 - 1 05/04/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Arsenal - Liverpool 1 - 1 02/04/2008 CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
Liverpool - Everton 1 - 0 30/03/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE


Everton - Chelsea 0 - 1 17/04/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Chelsea - Wigan Athletic 1 - 1 14/04/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Chelsea - Fenerbahce 2 - 0 08/04/2008 CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
Manchester City - Chelsea 0 - 2 05/04/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Fenerbahce - Chelsea 2 - 1 02/04/2008 CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
Chelsea - Middlesbrough 1 - 0 30/03/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE



Steven Gerrard is a doubt for Tuesday’s game after picking up a neck injury in training. A decision on the Reds skipper will be taken on Tuesday, with Lucas on standby. It remains to be seen whether Rafael Benítez will opt for the 4-4-2 used in the home quarter-final leg against Arsenal or stick to the mostly-used 4-2-3-1. Most clues will probably come from who didn’t play against Fulham.

Likely XI (4-2-3-1): Reina – Arbeloa, Carragher, Hyypia, Aurélio – Mascherano, Alonso – Kuyt, Gerrard, Babel – Torres


Frank Lampard will return having missed the last two Chelsea games on compassionate leave. He will probably start since Michael Essien is suspended. The Blues should be relatively fresh having had five days to prepare for this game and aren’t dealing with a lengthy casualty list. Wright-Phillips and Malouda will likely compete for a spot down the wing with Joe Cole set to get the other berth. It remains to be seen whether Didier Drogba will play an part but Michael Ballack (hamstring) looks set to miss out.

Likely XI (4-1-2-2-1): Cech – Ferreira, Carvalho, Terry, A Cole – Makélélé – Obi, Lampard – J Cole, Kalou – Anelka


Liverpool – Fernando Torres

The Liverpool striker scored a beauty of a goal against Chelsea earlier in the season, a fine way to get off the mark at Anfield, and will he hoping for the same again. The Spanish striker netted in both previous knock-out rounds of this year’s Champions League tournament and is bang in form having notched in Liverpool’s last seven home matches.

Chelsea – Frank Lampard

With Michael Ballack and Michael Essien both out, Lampard will need to be a tower of strength at Anfield on Tuesday night. Whether he's mentally up to it after missing the last two games for family reasons, only time will tell. The England international has netted twice against the Reds already this season, breaking the deadlock with a deflected effort in the Carling Cup quarter-final and slotting home that controversial penalty at Anfield back in August.

Benitez: We Are Confident We Can Score At Chelsea

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez hailed his side’s ability to rise to the occasion ahead of their Champions League semi-final clash.

The Merseyside club have beaten their London rivals twice at this stage in the competition in recent years, however this time around Chelsea will host the all-important second leg at Stamford Bridge.

But Benitez dismissed claims that this small difference would be the deciding factor in which team progresses to the final in Moscow.

Speaking in a press conference in the build-up to Liverpool v Chelsea part III, the Spanish tactician reeled off a number of instances in which the Reds have been set seemingly insurmountable tasks only to scale the heights of achievement and pull off famous victories.

Olympiakos, AC Milan, Chelsea and Marseille were all teams that held an advantage over Liverpool in Europe's premier club competition only to be stunned into defeat, and Benitez insists his current side has the confidence to score at Stamford Bridge, something they have never done under the Spaniard, to ensure a third final in four years for the Reds.

"This year in Marseille we needed to win and we scored four goals. The team has enough confidence and quality to score and win in any stadium."

Furthermore, Benitez insisted a clean sheet at Anfield would be important.

"We prefer more than one goal but at the end of this kind of game, between two top sides at this level, a small difference can be a massive difference.

"We are playing well at home and away, we have confidence, but we know Chelsea are a very good team defensively so it will be difficult.

"We need to be patient, not make mistakes, keep control of the game and create chances.

"We know it's difficult to score there and it will be important to score here and not concede."

Gerrard: Stamford Bridge No Big Deal

Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard has every confidence in his side's ability to make it three Champions League finals in four years. Unlike other teams, the Reds have proved they don't crumble under intense European pressure. Gerrard also believes that Anfield will faze Chelsea far more than Stamford Bridge will his team.

Gerrard was surely referring to Chelsea's exploits in their three previous semi-finals, where the Blues have emerged empty handed every time and are yet to reach the European Cup final in their entire history.

After being dumped out by underdogs Monaco in the 2004 competition came the two defeats at Anfield, where Chelsea collapsed in the second legs having kept clean sheets in the 2005 and 2007 home ties.

But where Chelsea fell playing their return legs away from home, Gerrard is determined to succeed. “I have a lot of confidence in us doing what it takes to get to another final over the course of the 180 minutes," stated the midfielder.

“This team never knows when it’s beaten. Some teams wilt and chuck in the towel when the going gets tough. That’s not the case with us. We’ll battle and scrap and believe in our ability to do whatever it takes - here at Anfield or down there on their patch - to progress in the European Cup.

It’s the biggest trophy there is," the England international continued. "Look at some of the clubs who have competed in it over the years without winning it. There’s not a player, manager or fan of any team in Europe who wouldn’t say the Champions League is the pinnacle in football. That’s one of the reasons we are desperate to be there when the destiny of the trophy is decided.

A lot is being made of the fact that we’ve got to go down there and play the second leg," Gerrard added. "It’s suggested that it gives them a big advantage. But Stamford Bridge has nothing like the aura about it that Anfield does and it certainly won’t intimidate us in the slightest. If we have to go there to finish the job then we will.”

Lucas ays Tribute To The Knowledge Of Benitez

Lucas Leiva believes he is learning from the best at Anfield as he prepares for the biggest game of his fledgling career.

The young Brazilian midfielder has enjoyed an encouraging first season since arriving from Gremio in the summer.

Having made his debut in the second leg of the Champions League qualifier against Toulouse back in August, Lucas has made 29 appearances and become an integral part of Rafael Benitez’s squad.

Such is the manager’s confidence in the 21-year-old, Lucas started both legs of the win over Inter Milan in the Champions League earlier this year.

And the Brazil international reckons the influence of Benitez, along with fellow midfielders Javier Mascherano and Steven Gerrard, has helped him settle and become a better player.

“Benitez is the most knowledgeable manager in the world, he continues to prove his qualities,” said Lucas.

“I knew Mascherano before I came here because I played against him in Brazil. He is a young player but is improving with every match. He can be one of the best midfielders in the world.

“And what can you say about Gerrard? He is a fantastic player, he is our captain and is a very good player.

“I have enjoyed so much playing alongside Steven Gerrard. Every match, every training session, he shows what a wonderful player he is.

“I am learning so much from him. I am gaining so much experience playing alongside him, and I know he will score the goals that will send us through.”

Despite an impressive display during the 2-0 win at Fulham on Saturday, Lucas is likely to begin on the bench in tonight’s Champions League semi-final first leg against Chelsea at Anfield.

And the Brazilian said: “This is the biggest game I have ever been involved in. I have played in some big games in Brazil, like the Copa Libertadores final against Boca Juniors. We lost the final but for me it was a very good experience, but nothing as big as the European nights I have experienced at Liverpool.

“It’s always important to have players on the bench playing well. Crouch scored a lot of goals last season and scored against Arsenal in the league and was then in the team for the quarter-final against them.

I did a good job against Fulham. Hopefully I can have a chance of playing against Chelsea, but even if I am on the bench then I want to be ready to play well for the team. It’s not just about starting a game.”

Lucas added: “When you come to Liverpool you want to play in every game, but you know there are players here like Mascherano, Gerrard, Alonso and Sissoko before he left.

“You want to play, and I’ve played almost 30 games now. It’s not more than I thought I’d play.

“When I came here, I know I needed to adapt first, and I think I have adapted to the English game now.

“English football is totally different to Brazilian football, it is physical, the tempo is high and you don’t have much time to think. But I think my game now is more suited to that.”

Lucas reckons Liverpool and Benitez’s record in the European Cup can hold them in good stead tonight.

“The manager has a good record in the Champions League and Liverpool has a very good history in the competition,” he said.

“We need to trust in ourselves to have confidence in our squad and confidence in our manager.

There is no difference to how we are preparing the games. All the games are important to us, but you are always more excited when you are about to play in the Champions League.

“The players have confidence when we play at home because of the supporters. They always push us on, the atmosphere is amazing and it’s always good for us.

“But we know we are going to have to play well, because if we don’t then we won’t go through.”

Benitez Urges Fans To Crank Up Noise

Rafael Benitez has urged Anfield to crank up the volume tonight to expose Chelsea’s mental scars and roar Liverpool towards another Champions League final.

Another intense atmosphere is expected when the Londoners travel to Merseyside for their third semi-final meeting in this competition in four years.

Backed by a huge support, Benitez’s side eliminated Chelsea en route to lifting the European Cup in 2005 and then scored a repeat success against the Stamford Bridge outfit last year.

The Liverpool manager believes the home fans will have to generate an atmosphere to surpass even those two memorable Anfield occasions - and play on the minds of Avram Grant’s visitors.

“For me, it would be an incentive but for them maybe it is psychological problem,” said Benitez of Chelsea’s previous two defeats. “I think they have enough experience and quality in the squad.

“I don't think they will have a problem coming to Anfield and dealing with the atmosphere. They can manage, so we must create more problems for them and create a better atmosphere.

“I feel that our team is playing well and we have enough confidence. But we cannot think it will be easy.”

Benitez added: “I don't think the difference in these games is the tactical approach. The difference could be the atmosphere in Anfield, the commitment of the players, and the quality of some players.

“The key for us is the supporter atmosphere. We have fantastic atmosphere in every game. The supporters know we need the support because the second leg will be at Stamford Bridge, and it will be difficult.

“We have confidence that we can win, but we have respect for Chelsea. They are a good team, they have a balance between attack and defence, well-organised in defence and good at counter-attack and also in attack, and also in set-pieces.

“I prefer to feel the same as we felt before, that we were underdogs against a fantastic team.”

Steven Gerrard will lead Liverpool out this evening after recovering from a neck injury, with Daniel Agger (foot) and Harry Kewell (groin) the only definite absentees.

Benitez - Duo Are Key

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez says Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres are the backbone of his Reds line-up.

The pair will line up against Chelsea in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League semi-final with Gerrard fit again, while Torres will lead the attack.

Blues boss Avram Grant recently revealed his admiration for Gerrard, stating that he would love to have him at Stamford Bridge.

However, Benitez is looking forward to Gerrard showing Grant just how special he is when he scores the winner against the West Londoners.

Torres has been a revelation in his debut season in England and Benitez has so much faith and confidence in the striker due to his ability to create a goal out of nothing.

"Gerrard is a key player for us, and when he scores the winner in the semi-final maybe Chelsea will see even more how important he is for us," said Benitez.

"It is not just about one or two players. We have players of quality who can change a game, and we must play as a unit.

"But when you have Torres or Gerrard, and you are not playing well, the team know that these players can score to get you out of a problem.

"We have a lot of confidence because we know Torres can create something."

Liverpool has knocked Chelsea out of the Champions League at the semi-final stage twice in the last three seasons, although Benitez has conceded having the first leg at Anfield will be a strange situation.

Nevertheless he wants his troops to score on home soil and keep Chelsea off the scoreboard.

"When we have beaten Chelsea previously in two European semi-finals, the second leg has been at Anfield," he continued. "This time it will be the reverse situation, so we need to score and not concede here.

"I would prefer to play the second game at Anfield, but we just have to manage the situation.

"The difference will be key players in key moments, but our fans can score the first goal. And with the games being the other way around this time maybe the fans will concentrate even more for us.

"I am pleased with our form at home, but Chelsea are excellent. We must do our job, be patient and concentrate. We have to control the game and not concede possession.

"Our fans are clever, they know that it will be difficult at Stamford Bridge so they will know how much they must be behind us here.

"I know we have not scored at Stamford Bridge in the Champions League, but we are playing well and I know we can score in this tie in both matches.

"We have had difficult ties like this. In previous seasons we played away second against Juventus and Marseille, and we got through the ties. We can do it again. We have enough confidence to score in any stadium."

Fans Dream Of The Champions League Final

Officially no-one is thinking that far ahead. For the players and managers everything is about this tie. From the dressing rooms of the Champions League four semi-finalists over the past fortnight we have heard nothing but talk of focusing on the job in hand, taking each game as it comes, making sure bridges are crossed one at a time.

An adherence to such clichés is the way of the professional footballer. They all exhibit a narrowness of focus born of a mix of modern sports psychology and ancient superstition. None of them would ever admit publicly to counting so much as a single unhatched chicken.

For the fans, however, it is very different. They all have one eye on the conclusion. And ever since the draw was made, fantasy line-ups for the final have been filling the thoughts of those who spend most of the working day posting comments on their fan forums.

It is not just supporters of the four clubs involved, either. Neutrals too have been day-dreaming about final permutations, wondering who they would like to see make it to Moscow, their choices motivated largely by which set of supporters they would prefer to end up disappointed.

Not that there is much debate about Wednesday night's encounter in Catalonia. Apart from Manchester United and Real Madrid supporters, it is safe to suggest everyone else would like Barcelona to progress.

This is not solely a reflection of traditional antipathy to United. In Britain, Barcelona are the fantasy football side of choice, a club owned by its supporters, a team stuffed with the game's foremost entertainers.

Barca remain an outfit dusted with glamour. Besides, apart from a few patriots deluding themselves that an all-English final will somehow compensate for no English involvement at Euro 2008, everyone would prefer to see something different.

United play Chelsea and Liverpool twice a year anyhow; there's a game between the reds and the blues sandwiched between the two semi-final legs. It would not exactly be a special one if the encounter were repeated in Russia a month later.

It is much harder, though, to detect a neutrals' favourite emerging from tonight's tie. Chelsea have won few friends beyond Stamford Bridge with their elephantine spending and cautious, pragmatic football. And Liverpool's recent boardroom soap opera has not endeared the club to the wider world.

Manchester United fans, on the other hand, have no such dilemma: tonight, for them, the choice is an easy one. It has to be Chelsea. They would back their team on current form to beat anyone.

But there is always, lurking in the back of even the most optimistic mind, the possibility of defeat. And the thought of losing to Liverpool in a Champions League final is too painful to contemplate.

Never mind the retreat from Moscow, just imagine the witty banners unfurled in the Kop for years to come. Not even Napoleon had to put up with that.