Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Champions League Preview: Chelsea vs. LiverpooL

Can Liverpool do something they haven't previously managed under Rafael Benitez - score a goal against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge? They will have to if they want to reach their third Champions League final in four seasons. The Reds need at least a score-draw at the Bridge, a venue that Chelsea have turned into a formidable fortress. The Blues have suffered a solitary defeat in their last 125 home games, while Liverpool have failed even to score on Chelsea's ground in eight attempts under Benitez.

Chelsea are unbeaten in eleven Champions League home ties, a run spanning eight victories and three draws, dating back 26 months to a 2-1 defeat by Barcelona in the first knockout round of 2005-06.

So, is the tie firmly in Chelsea's favour? Well, not necessarily, although John Arne
Riise’s stoppage-time howler has given Liverpool a far steeper hill to climb than had seemed probable when last week's first leg entered its fateful 94th minute.

The away goal Chelsea secured via Riise's largesse will only be significant if the score at the Bridge finishes 0-0. Any other result and its importance diminishes, although another 1-1 draw would force extra-time and, possibly, penalties. Chelsea know all about spot kicks, having succumbed to the Merseysiders in a shoot-out after extra-time at the same stage of last year's competition.

Liverpool's focus will be clear - go for victory. Chelsea could be tempted to gamble on a goalless draw, but that would be a high-risk strategy and one that manager Avram Grant and his players will almost certainly reject - particularly after going for the jugular at home to Manchester United last Saturday in the Premier League title race and being rewarded with a priceless win. That outcome should have given Chelsea plenty of confidence as they strive to reach a Champions League final for the first time in their history, even though Liverpool have never lost a semi-final tie to Chelsea, either domestically or in Europe....

The Reds have also not lost a semi-final in this competition since being controversially defeated 4-3 on aggregate by Internazionale in 1964-65, subsequently beating Zurich (1976-77), Borussia Monchengladbach (1977-78), Bayern (1980-81), Dinamo Bucharest (1983-84), Panathinaikos (1984-85) and Chelsea (2004-05, 2006-07).

In contrast, the Blues have fallen at the semi-final hurdle three times previously. Those three semi-final appearances have all come since Roman Abramovich bought the club and launched them into football's financial stratosphere. Claudio Ranieri's side stumbled against Monaco in 2004, and Jose Mourinho's Chelsea were thwarted twice by Wednesday's opponents Liverpool in the last three seasons. Now Avram Grant has the opportunity to put those heart-breaks behind the West London club and make it third time lucky against Liverpool.

But Benitez is undaunted by history or venue, and has challenged his players to break their dismal Stamford Bridge scoring hoodoo to set up a Moscow date with Manchester United. The chance to meet and try to beat United in Moscow next month is likely to provide additional incentive to the protagonists at Stamford Bridge.

Benitez played it cool when journalists asked him if Chelsea's home record concerned him. “Not really,” he said. “I don't know how many games they are without losing.

“When you talk about Chelsea over the past four or five years, they are a team that are progressing and improving so I think it is normal. The majority of teams have problems there. This is something we can change tomorrow. It's another competition, it's totally different. The mentality, the atmosphere, the time of kick-off - everything will be different.”

Liverpool have now guaranteed themselves fourth place in The Premier League after Everton were held to a draw by Aston Villa on Sunday, so the Reds can afford to concentrate solely on Champions League glory. For Chelsea, their win against United at the weekend means they are neck-and-neck with the Red Devils at the top of the table. Only goal difference separates the two sides, which both have two League games left in which to clinch the title. Grant's strategic and therefore tactical considerations will be rather more complex as a result.

It might be said that Benitez has the potential distraction of Anfield's boardroom civil war to shut out of his pre-match thinking, though given Liverpool's failure to mount a serious title challenge, the Champions League has assumed disproportionate importance for the Spaniard, and he will be desperate to avoid a semi-final defeat in the competition.

Benitez insists: “I'm not really worried about how the season will be judged. It is more about how can we progress in this competition and can we feel happy with ourselves after the game?

“I think it is important to know we have guaranteed fourth position. That has been the key over the past few years and now we must try to go to the final.”

Meanwhile Grant can argue that his job has been on the line since succeeding Mourinho in September, with a hostile media and unsympathetic fans choosing to ignore his impressive record as Chelsea boss and instead focusing on the negatives. The Israel has been repeatedly told, at least by the newspapers, that anything less than triumph in the Premier League and Champions League will spell his exit from the Bridge. Yet he has carried that burden while steering the Blues to the brink of ultimate success in both competitions, and deserves credit and respect for that.

The rivalry between Liverpool and Chelsea intensified following the appointment of Iberian adversaries Benitez and Mourinho at the respective clubs in the summer of 2004. They have since met six times in Champions League encounters, excluding this season's semi-final. Liverpool have shaded the meetings, with two wins to Chelsea's one.

Their first Champions League clash was in the 2004-05 semi-final when Luis García's fourth-minute goal in the second leg at Anfield was enough to earn the Reds a 1-0 aggregate victory on the way to their epic final triumph on penalties against AC Milan in Istanbul.

The following season, Liverpool and Chelsea were paired in the group stage, and produced two goalless draws as both reached the knock-out rounds, Liverpool as group winners.

Then last season Liverpool proved to be Chelsea's nemesis again at the semi-final stage. They lost the first leg 1-0 at Stamford Bridge thanks to a 29th minute strike from Joe Cole, but won the return on 1st May, also 1-0, when Daniel Agger netted after 22 minutes. Extra-time failed to separate the sides but in the penalty shoot-out, Liverpool emerged 4-1 winners.

The Reds took the first spot-kick, Boudewijn Zenden converting (1-0); Arjen Robben's shot was saved (1-0); Xabi Alonso scored to make it 2-0; Frank Lampard pulled one back (2-1); Steven Gerrard, scored (3-1); Geremi's effort was saved by Pepe Reina (3-1); and Dirk Kuyt score to make it 4-1 and take it beyond Chelsea's grasp.

Previous Meetings In The Champions League

27.04.2005 Semi Chelsea 0-0 Liverpool
03.05.2005 Semi Liverpool - Chelsea 1-0
28.09.2005 Group Liverpool - Chelsea 0-0
06.12.2005 Group Chelsea - Liverpool 0-0
25.04.2007 Semi Chelsea - Liverpool 1-0
01.05.2007 Semi Liverpool - Chelsea 1-0 (Liverpool win 4-1 on pens aet)
22.04.2008 Semi Liverpool - Chelsea 1-1

Liverpool and Chelsea have also met three times in domestic competition this season. The first clash was early on and produced a 1-1 draw at Anfield on 19th August, though Chelsea enjoyed good fortune when referee Rob Styles unaccountably awarded them a penalty when Florent Malouda fell over in the box, Lampard making the most of the 62nd-minute gift to equalise Fernando Torres' first goal for his new club in the 16th minute.

When the two sides squared up again, Grant had replaced Mourinho as manager. It was a Carling League Cup quarter-final at Stamford Bridge on 19th December, and Lampard (59) and Andriy Shevchenko (90) scored the goals that ended Liverpool's interest in the competition.

The third meeting this season yielded no goals in a Stamford Bridge stalemate in the Premier League on 10th February.

Then came last week's first leg of this Champions League semi-final. Riise's own goal four minutes into added time at Anfield cancelled out Dirk Kuyt's 43rd-minute strike and shifted the balance of the tie in Chelsea's direction.

Asked if Chelsea were fortunate to take a 1-1 draw from that first leg, Benitez said: “Yes, clearly they were lucky because Petr Cech made two or three saves, so they were lucky, yes."

He added: "I was really surprised and of course very disappointed with the own goal. The reaction in the dressing room was one of great disappointment."

Overall the clubs have now met 151 times. There have been 67 wins for Liverpool, 52 for Chelsea, and 32 draws.

Chelsea's home record against Liverpool in all competitions is P73 W41 D16 L16, while Liverpool have managed three draws and five defeats in eight visits to Chelsea under Benítez. Their last goal at the Bridge was scored by Bruno Cheyrou in a 1-0 Premier League victory on 7th January, 2004.



26 Apr (Premier League) v Man Utd (H) WON 2-1 (Ballack 2, 1 pen)
22 Apr (Champions League) v Liverpool (A) DREW 1-1 (Riise og)
17 Apr (Premier League) v Everton (A) WON 1-0 (Essien)
14 Apr (Premier League) v Wigan (H) DREW 1-1 (Essien)
08 Apr (Champions League) v Fenerbahce (H) WON 2-0 (Ballack, Lampard)
05 Apr (Premier League) v Man City (A) WON 2-0 (Dunne og, Kalou)
02 Apr (Champions League) v Fenerbahce (A) LOST 1-2 (Deivid og)


26 Apr (Premier League) v Birmingham (A) DREW 2-2 (Crouch, Benayoun)
22 Apr (Champions League) v Chelsea (H) DREW 1-1 (Kuyt)
19 Apr (Premier League) v Fulham (A) WON 2-0 (Pennant, Crouch)
13 Apr (Premier League) v Blackburn (H) WON 3-1 (Gerrard, Torres, Voronin)
08 Apr (Champions League) v Arsenal (H) WON 4-2 (Hyypia, Torres, Gerrard pen,
05 Apr (Premier League) v Arsenal (A) DREW 1-1 (Crouch)
02 Apr (Champions League) v Arsenal (A) DREW 1-1 (Kuyt)



Midfielder and top scorer Frank Lampard looks set to return, having played in the 1-1 draw at Anfield but missed Saturday's 2-1 win over Manchester United following the death of his mother Pat from pneumonia.

Squad: Cech, Hilario, Belletti, Ferreira, Carvalho, Alex, Ben-Haim, Terry, A Cole, Bridge, J Cole, Ballack, Essien, Lampard, Wright-Phillips, Malouda, Kalou, Anelka, Drogba, Shevchenko, Mikel, Makelele.


Norwegian full-back John Arne Riise, who scored that injury-time own goal after coming on as a substitute in the first leg, could replace injured Fabio Aurelio, the Brazilian defender having been ruled out by a groin injury.

Benitez could also recall Sami Hyypia to centre-back, switch Jamie Carragher to right-back and Alvaro Arbeloa to the left - or recall Steve Finnan to one of the full-back berths.

Striker Fernando Torres is sure to start after being rested for Saturday's draw with Birmingham. Peter Crouch, who has scored when used recently, could partner Torres at the expense of Ryan Babel.

Squad: Reina, Carragher, Arbeloa, Hyypia, Skrtel, Riise, Finnan, Babel, Benayoun, Gerrard, Lucas, Alonso, Mascherano, Pennant, Crouch, Kuyt, Torres, Voronin, Itandje.


On such an occasion as this managers and fans look for their biggest names to perform, although often it is the unsung hero who changes the course of the match.

For Chelsea, the biggest names are John Terry, Michael Ballack, Didier Drogba and (if he plays), Frank Lampard. Terry and particularly Ballack were outstanding at the weekend against United, though Drogba was well below his best apart from the superb ball in for Ballack's headed opener. It is impossible to predict what frame of mind Lampard will be in; he was distinctly below par in the first leg, however understandably. An intriguing statistic is that Terry, who will undoubtedly lead by example, has scored only one goal in a very long time. Given that a set-piece is likely to determine the outcome of another tense, tight encounter, maybe Terry will be the scorer. As for Ballack, he is in top form and the best bet in blue to dictate the play. His experience and cool in high-pressure situations could be helpful to Chelsea.

Liverpool's key players will probably be Jamie Carragher at the back, Steven Gerrard in midfield and Fernando Torres up front. Carragher's tussle with Drogba could prove significant, and the Scouse defender will be anxious to keep the Ivorian out of the Reds' penalty area for all the obvious reasons. Gerrard's ability to impose his will on the game from midfield will probably be aided by Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano, but challenged by Ballack and Michael Essien, with Mikel or Makele lending support and - if he plays - Lampard looking to run from deep positions and strike.

In attack Liverpool look to have the edge with Torres, given that Chelsea's strikers have not delivered much lately. On Chelsea's last ten goals in all competitions, three have been scored by their opponents, six by midfielders and only one by a striker (Salomon Kalou). Torres, in contrast, is in clinical mood.

Kalou in fact is a former team-mate of Liverpool's Dutch striker, Dirk Kuyt. The two were together at Feyenoord in Rotterdam between 2004 and 2006 and struck up a productive partnership. Kuyt netted 51 League goals and Kalou 35 during their two seasons together.

As for Liverpool's Israeli midfielder, Yossi Benayoun, he played for Chelsea boss Avram Grant when the pair were employed by Maccabi Haifa in the 2000-01 and 2001-02 seasons. They won two League titles together, and Benayoun later also played under Grant for the Israel national team.

Chelsea striker Nicolas Anelka spent the second half of the 2001-02 season on loan to Liverpool, scoring four goals in 20 League appearances for the Reds and professing disappointment when then manager Gerard Houllier chose not sign his compatriot on a permanent deal.

Andriy Shevchenko may feature in a cameo role but he will be particularly keen to inflict defeat on Liverpool. The Chelsea striker's penalty for AC Milan in the shoot-out at the end of the 2005 Champions League final was saved by Liverpool keeper Jerzy Dudek, sealing the Reds' amazing comeback against the Rossoneri and allowing Steven Gerrard to hoist the trophy.

Riise: I Will Bounce Back

John Arne Riise insists he has recovered from the shock of his own goal in the first leg of Liverpool’s Champions League semi-final with Chelsea, and is ready to make amends at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday.

The Norwegian made the headlines for all the wrong reasons last week when he headed past a helpless Pepe Reina in the 95th minute at Anfield to gift Chelsea a vital away goal and level the scores at 1-1.

It was Riise’s second own goal this season – perhaps his last season on Merseyside, in fact – his first coming against Luton Town in the FA Cup in January.

The 27-year-old admits he engaged in a significant amount of soul-searching after last Tuesday’s nightmare, but he insists he has come to grips with his error and is focused solely on besting the Blues tomorrow night.

"We had a day off the day after the game and I went through things in my head then," said Riise.

"I just went home and I didn't want to speak to anyone, I just had to think about it myself. I realised you just have to move on and now I think I have. All you can do is focus on upcoming games, not ones that have gone before.

"For me the biggest thing was the timing of the goal, the last kick of the game and such an important game too. That was the most disappointing thing for me and everyone in the team.

"But mentally I am very strong anyway and I managed to get things quickly out of my mind. Coming back on Saturday was all that mattered to me and now it's Wednesday – just thinking about doing well if I get the chance there.

"Nobody wants to score an own goal but people make mistakes – and nobody will blame me if it's 0-0 on Wednesday and we don't go through.

"But nobody is even thinking about that, we are going to try and get a win and hopefully we will get it. Then the first leg result and the own goal won't matter."

Last week’s result means Chelsea head into the second leg as favourites to progress to the final in Moscow, where they would face Manchester United following the Red Devils’ 1-0 aggregate win over Barcelona.

But Liverpool have a knack of performing when given the tag of underdogs, especially on the European stage, and while Riise respects the threat Chelsea pose, he believes the Reds will succeed once more to reach their third Champions League final in four years.

"We know we can do it," the former Monaco full-back said. "It's a case of going there, having a go and knowing we can score.

"We are positive and know we can get a result. It's a big game and it's going to be a cracking night so hopefully we can come up winners in the end.

"We have to respect Chelsea for the team they are. They beat Manchester United on Saturday and haven't lost at home for God knows how many games so I think we have to respect that beforehand – but records are there to be broken. And we will go there and try to win because we have to and it's for a place in the final of the Champions League.

"So the whole team has a lot of confidence and we know we can have a go and score. It's going to be tough game but these games are why we play football."

Amantino Mancini Is Set For Liverpool Move

Liverpool target Amantino Mancini could move to Anfield for a cut-price £4million this summer.

The Brazilian winger is set to turn down a new deal at Roma - and could buy out the remaining year of his contract under new FIFA rules.

Roma would then be owed £4m in compensation but that would be a big loss for a player valued at about £10m.

Reds boss Rafael Benitez saw a bid for Mancini, 27, rebuffed by Roma last summer but he is likely to have more luck this time.

"I am coming out of an unlucky spell and I need to feel important again," said Mancini. "I won't speak about my contract until the end of the season."

There is also increasing optimism at Anfield that the chance of playing Champions League football next season will be the key to luring Gareth Barry to Merseyside from Aston Villa in the summer.

In addition, Barry is desperate to become an England regular and knows that playing alongside Steven Gerrard would be a major boost to his international ambitions.

Benítez Sees His Way Clearly Amid Plots

Paranoia coloured Rafael Benítez's view on several issues yesterday, with the notable exception of the task awaiting Liverpool at Stamford Bridge tonight. An Italian referee who has handled five home wins in six European games this season, including one for Liverpool, and the vagaries of the Football Association's disciplinary process had the Spaniard indulging in conspiracy theories, but this was not a man wilting under the pressure of a turbulent season's defining moment.

So confident is the manager before facing Chelsea that he boasted of José Reina's penalty prowess should their Champions League semi-final second leg rest on another shoot-out lottery. Benítez had been similarly upbeat before the first leg and, despite John Arne Riise's own-goal, it did not take him long to rediscover faith on the path to Moscow.

He says that in his players' eyes he has seen a belief that they can reach a third final in four years, with the likes of Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso desperate to repeat their triumph of 2005. "I can see that they are winners and for the players who were in Istanbul and Athens it is even more important to reach the final for a third time," he said.

It was when he was sitting alone in the family home in the Wirral in the early hours last Wednesday that Benítez concluded that Liverpool had nothing to fear from Avram Grant's team. "Forty-five minutes after the game I watched parts of it on video and then I watched it again when I got home," he said. "When you concede a goal in the last second, everything is bad, but after watching the game it was clear we had better chances, had more control and played better than them, and that means we can do it again.

"Chelsea were lucky. In the other semi-finals it was 50-50, or maybe 60-40, and we scored a fantastic goal from Luis García. We were clearly better than them this time. Now we are playing for a final. The players know how important it is to be in a final. I don't need to say too much. They are really focused."

Riise's own-goal has at least simplified the objective for Liverpool as they seek to win their eighth successive European Cup semi-final, with the necessity to score promoting Peter Crouch's claims to start. "It's not a special plan or idea, it's very simple," said Benítez. "We need to score. If we win it will be better. If we draw one-all then we know that Pepe [Reina] is good on penalties. If we draw two-all then we are through. We don't need to win, we need to progress."

The co-owner Tom Hicks is expected to be at the match tonight as Liverpool try to overcome their poor record at Stamford Bridge. They have not scored in eight visits under Benítez and have beaten Chelsea there only once since December 1989. But, with 27 goals in 11 games, Liverpool are the leading scorers in this season's Champions League and have registered in every away fixture. "Statistics are there to be broken," said Benítez. "How many teams have won there in the last 100 or so games?"

Of more concern to him is the referee, Roberto Rosetti, who has presided over one away win in six Champions League games this season: Chelsea's victory at Valencia. "Maybe that is curious," Benítez said. "The referee has experience; he is certainly not bad. If he is strong at Stamford Bridge then things will be OK." Given that Liverpool's 4-1 defeat of Porto was among those five home wins, the manager was on questionable ground. More likely, having spoken of Didier Drogba's theatrics, the Spaniard was simply trying to protect Carragher and Gerrard from the bookings that would rule them out of the final.

Talking Tactics: Chelsea v Liverpool

If Avram Grant is to do what Jose Mourinho couldn't and take Chelsea into the uncharted territory that is the Champions League final, then one of the main reasons for the giant leap forward will be the extra spring in the step of his players.

In terms of running off the ball, Chelsea have improved 50 per cent since Mourinho left last September and the extra mobility has transformed them into a more formidable attacking unit.

Michael Essien and Michael Ballack epitomised the new ultra-athletic Chelsea against Manchester United and they will be joined tonight by Frank Lampard, who can make energy-sapping runs into the box.

It also helps that with the possible exception of Didier Drogba, Grant's team are playing with a smile on their following a tumultuous season.

Grant's done a magnificent job in difficult circumstances and his players seem to be enjoying themselves.

Liverpool will have fire in their bellies as well and, with their disciplined midfield, will be difficult to break down. Xabi Alonso will bring more guile than Chelsea's central trio and Javier Mascherano will add extra bite, but I can't see them stopping Ballack, Essien and Lampard.


Rafael Benitez v Avram Grant

Avram Grant will want his players to re-produce the performance that saw Manchester United beaten to leave everyone at Stamford Bridge on a high. However, he will know that Liverpool will pose a greater attacking threat than United because they will only sit back in the early stages of the game when Chelsea are going for the jugular and then will they try to pick off.


Claude Makelele v Steven Gerrard

I make no apology for yet again identifying Steven Gerrard as Liverpool's key player because, in the right circumstances, he'll dictate attacking movements and then Chelsea will have a big problem. He got the better of Claude Makelele at Anfield. This time Chelsea's midfield anchorman must protect the back four and stop Gerrard picking up possession centrally by shutting him down, blocking him off and forcing him out wide, well away from deadly striker Fernando Torres.

We Can Beat Chelsea - Arbeloa

Liverpool full-back Alvaro Arbeloa is full of confidence going into the second leg of his side's Champions League semi-final against Chelsea.

It's advantage Chelsea, after a last-minute own goal from John Arne Riise gifted them an away goal an equaliser at Anfield.

Liverpool have beaten Chelsea twice in the last three years at this stage in the competition, but the ties were won at home. They will not have that advantage this time, and Benitez has not managed to see his team score a goal at Stamford Bridge in the eight visits he has made to the stadium.

Nevertheless, he and his fellow Madridista Arbeloa are full of confidence and belief that they will make their third final in four years.

"We have been here before twice in the last three years and we have beaten Chelsea before," said Arbeloa. "We know what we have to do. If we can do the same again we will be in the Champions League final.

"Chelsea know Liverpool are a really good team. The last two times we won and I hope this time as well. We played really well [in the first leg] and we're happy with our performance. We have confidence.

"We beat Inter, we beat Arsenal and I think we can beat Chelsea. We just need to do the same things as the other day. We need to take our chances and, why not, we can beat Chelsea here.

"We know it is really difficult to win here because Chelsea are a really strong team, but no one said it would be easy. We have confidence in ourselves. We have to score one goal. We have players with quality and they can score everywhere. We can win."

He also gave compatriot and team-mate Jose Reina the highest of praise, branding him the best goalkeeper in the world and as such, he would be content with the tie going to penalties - as it did last year - as he sees the Reds having the advantage.

"I think penalties are better for us because we have the best keeper in the world," he declared. Though he added that, ideally, the tie will be decided long before then. "The key for us is to be really strong in defence and take our chances," he said. "If we take our chances we can win."