Thursday, May 01, 2008

Chelsea 3 - 2 LiverpooL

Extra-time goals from Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba sent Chelsea into a Champions League final showdown against Manchester United in Moscow next month.

Lampard, playing his first game since the death of his mother last week, slotted home a 98th-minute penalty and Drogba, who had opened the scoring in the first-half, sent Chelsea to the final with a timely second.

Fernando Torres had given Liverpool hope with a second-half equaliser but they failed to finish the job and Chelsea made them pay in a pulsating extra period which also saw Ryan Babel grab a late consolation goal for the Reds.

Drogba, a man whose penchant for spending more time horizontally on the pitch had incurred the wrath of Liverpool coach Rafael Benitez prior to kick-off, was clearly a man on a mission as he forced Jose Reina to turn his skidding 18-yard effort around the post in the fifth minute.

Four minutes later Liverpool put together their only meaningful move of the opening half when a quick Steven Gerrard pass put Fernando Torres in behind the Chelsea defence.

Unfortunately, the Spaniard's first touch was not deft enough and although he bore down on Petr Cech, the Chelsea goalkeeper had done enough to close down his space and options.

The slippery conditions hampered both sides but it was Chelsea who mastered them quicker.

In the 18th minute Lampard despatched a delightful pass into the path of Drogba but the Ivory Coast international striker was a yard wide with his shot.

But Chelsea were in the ascendancy and their supremacy was underlined by Michael Essien's 25-yard effort which had to be collected by Reina at the foot of his right-hand post.

Liverpool were struggling to keep pace with the home side and their worries increased when Martin Skrtel was forced off with a knee injury in the 21st minute and he was replaced by Sami Hyypia.

Reina was forced to punch clear a long-range effort from Ballack but the goal Chelsea had threatened for most of the half arrived in style in the 33rd minute.

The architect, as so often this season, was England midfielder Lampard.

He cleverly split the Liverpool defence to give Salomon Kalou the chance to run on and fire a shot that Reina could only palm into the path of the onrushing Drogba.

The Ivorian does not miss such gifts and he sent a low drive fizzing into the net at the near post to give Liverpool a 2-1 aggregate lead.

The Chelsea striker, clearly hurt by Benitez's criticism of his 'diving', then ran the length of the half to celebrate his goal in front of the Liverpool manager.

Chelsea's domination almost brought them a second four minutes before the interval but Ballack's measured free-kick veered just the wrong side of an upright.

Dirk Kuyt almost hauled Liverpool back into the tie three minutes after the restart but his shot met the outstretched leg of Cech before Ashley Cole cleared.

After Lampard's 53rd-minute volley was well held by Reina, Liverpool finally broke their goalscoring hoodoo when Yossi Benayoun carved out a chance for Torres.

The Spaniard collected the ball in his stride just inside the penalty area before sliding it beyond the exposed Cech to make it 2-2 on aggregate - the 64th-minute effort was Chelsea's first at Stamford Bridge in nine games under Benitez.

Liverpool were now unrecognisable from the insipid team of the first-half.

They were pulling Chelsea apart in midfield and the home side were looking decidedly nervy for the first time in the game.

But Chelsea rallied and a fine run by Essien ended when he found the side-netting.

Both sides sought a winner - but the 90 minutes ended all-square and the contest went into extra-time.

Liverpool almost snatched the lead within minutes of the restart but Hyypia's header fell wide of the post with Cech beaten.

Chelsea then thought they had done enough when Essien sent a 20-yard effort into the net - but it was rightly disallowed for offside.

However, in the 98th minute, Ballack was brought down by Hyypia inside the box and referee Roberto Rosetti pointed to the spot.

Lampard kept his composure to send Reina the wrong way and was in tears as he celebrated with his team-mates.

Worse was to come for Liverpool when substitute Nicolas Anelka got free on the right and pulled the ball back for Drogba to fire under Reina.

An error from Cech gifted Babel a late goal but Chelsea held on to reach their first Champions League final.

Benítez Left With Empty Feeling And Unclear Future

Rafael Benítez owes his reputation in England to achievements abroad. Liverpool supporters may crave the league title above all else, but even those who cavil at domestic campaigns that have faded with the snowdrops have to acknowledge his unarguable Champions League record.

Europe will provide no succour this season, however. In their third Champions League semi-final meeting in four seasons Liverpool were finally thwarted by Chelsea, and for Benítez the prospect of glory has given way to the reality of a season without silverware.

The Spaniard has much to contemplate, not least whether he will still be in his post next campaign. He is manager of a club with a dysfunctional boardroom, the co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett in open conflict and Benítez's tensions with the chief executive, Rick Parry, barely concealed. Hicks went to the dressing room after last night's defeat to commiserate with the team, but whether it was a valedictory visit remains unclear, as Dubai Investment Capital continues to circle the club. Should Benítez remain in the post come August, and the ownership of the club be sufficiently clear to allow him to invest in the four or five players he believes he needs to progress, the priority will be to close the gap in the league.

After four seasons under Benítez Liverpool are no closer to Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal in the league than they were in 2004 when Gérard Houllier left Anfield. It is a rebuke to Benítez's claims that he is making progress, but for every critic he will always have Istanbul.

As insurance policies go, winning club football's greatest prize in your first season takes some beating, even if the manner of that Istanbul victory ensures that regardless of what transpired last night Benítez should never be considered an unlucky manager. Having selected the wrong team to face Milan in the 2005 final and only changed it when, at 3-0 down, it should have been too late, Benítez owed victory to one of the more notable chokes in sporting history from the Italian side, aided and abetted by an indefatigable display from Steven Gerrard. It bought him time as well as respect, and was bolstered last year by yet another final appearance. But last night his sure-footedness in European competition appeared to desert him.

Twice at this stage of the Champions League he has seen off Chelsea, but on both occasions the decisive leg came at Anfield. Jose Mourinho will forever attribute the "phantom goal" that decided the 2005 tie to the hostility of the Kop, and last season the same supporters contributed to Chelsea's startling collapse in the penalty shoot-out.

Required to conjure a result at the sharp end of a semi-final at Stamford Bridge, a ground every bit as kind to Chelsea as Anfield has been unforgiving, it proved beyond him and his players. Benítez had not won in eight previous visits and Fernando Torres' goal last night was Liverpool's first on the Fulham Road since January 2004.

Neither did Benítez help himself with his pre-match comments aimed at Didier Drogba. The Spaniard's pre-match observation that the Ivorian is prone to diving proved disastrous. It may have been a statement of the obvious but it ensured a hostile reception for his players and stoked a devastating response from Chelsea's most potent striker. He left Benítez in no doubt about their effect when, after lashing home Chelsea's goal in the 33rd minute, he ran 50 yards to celebrate in front of the Liverpool dugout. Benítez affected not to notice, but the significance was lost on no one.

By that time Benítez had more on his mind than losing a war of words. His side showed one alteration from the one that dominated at Anfield, Yossi Benayoun replacing Ryan Babel on the left, but they floundered as Chelsea dominated a rollicking opening apparently designed to demonstrate that regardless of the nationality of the personnel this was to be an truly English football occasion.

Benítez employed Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso to screen the back four, but in the opening exchanges they were repeatedly bypassed and with Pepe Reina's goal sustaining an early barrage there was little sign of the potency on the break that Liverpool would require to reach Moscow. Gerrard, Dirk Kuyt and Benayoun were wasteful, and Benítez spent much of the half trying to effect a transformation.

Gradually his side gained a foothold in the sodden conditions and for 20 minutes after half-time, thanks largely to the pace and poise of Torres, they found their way back. Inevitably Torres offered Benítez his lifeline, latching on to a Benayoun pass to equalise 20 minutes into the second half. From then extra-time seemed inevitable. Ultimately, though, Benítez had no answer to opponents who last night deserved to be dreaming of Moscow as the Spaniard ponders an uncertain future.

Carra Proud Of Battling Reds

Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher has spoken of his pride at his team-mates' display against Chelsea on Wednesday night.

Rafa Benitez's Liverpool exited this season's UEFA Champions League as Chelsea ran out 3-2 victors on a thrilling evening at Stamford Bridge.

A brace from Didier Drogba and an extra-time penalty from Frank Lampard brought an end to The Reds' hunt for silverware this season.

But Carragher believes Liverpool can draw heart from their performance, and is hopeful that the club's future is bright.

"We knew it was going to be tough, and we are disappointed," he told Sky Sports News.

"It is a great achievement by Chelsea, good luck to them in the final. As I said, we are disappointed but we have just got to accept it and move on.

"We have got to be proud of the way we acted and performed. That bodes well for the future, hopefully."

Liverpool had appeals for a penalty waved away by referee Roberto Rosetti after Sami Hyypia went down under a challenge from Didier Drogba in extra-time with the scoreline at 3-1.

Carragher felt his side were unlucky not to be awarded the spot-kick, but is refusing to dwell on what might have been.

"I think their one (which Lampard dispatched on 98 minutes after Hyypia felled Michael Ballack) was a penalty. I also think our one was too," Carragher continued.

"The referee put the whistle to his mouth, but maybe we didn't appeal enough. But it is gone now. We are out. There is no point moaning about it now."

Torres Eyes Liverpool For Life

Fernando Torres hopes to end his career at Liverpool, but feels it is too early to compare him to legends from Anfield's past.

Torres has made a dazzling start to life in England after already netting 30 goals in his debut campaign following a record-breaking switch from Atletico Madrid last summer.

And ahead of Liverpool's UEFA Champions League semi-final second leg at Chelsea, a match which can be seen live on Sky Sports 2, the 24-year-old Spaniard has admitted he would not be against the possibility of seeing out his playing days on Merseyside.

"I hope so," Torres - who will be charged with the vital task of ending Liverpool's eight-game goal drought at Stamford Bridge - told LFC TV when asked if he would like to remain a Liverpool player for the rest of his career.

"I feel very confident here. If we can win trophies, then much better. This is my team, my city and Anfield is my pitch. I feel very good."

Torres' stunning form has seen him compared to previous Reds striking greats Ian Rush and Robbie Fowler.

And his productive partnership with Steven Gerrard has also created flashbacks to Rush's pairing with Kenny Dalglish, but the Spaniard is keen to play down the similarities.

"I'm very proud. But now is not the moment," Torres added.

"Kenny, Robbie and Stevie (Gerrard) have a lot of trophies, a lot of titles and they have played hundreds of games for the club. They have been legends for lots of years.

"This is only my first season at Liverpool and I want to play better for many more seasons yet. So far I've had one good season but Kenny and Robbie have had six, seven, eight or 10 good seasons at Liverpool. It's different.

"When I have finished my career then maybe that will be the moment to talk about these things but not now. It's too early.

"It's important to me that the fans think highly of me and if they're saying these things then I would say 'thank you, but not yet'.

"I think they love me and I love them. It's great when kids and their granddads come up to me in the street and say 'you're the best'.

"I was with Kenny Dalglish the other day and you could see in the faces of the people how much of a hero he is, 20 years after he finished his career. I want everyone to remember me in 20 years' time."

DIC Will Back Rafa Benitez If Takeover Succeeds

Rafa Benitez has been reassured by DIC, the consortium seeking to take over Liverpool, that his position as manager will be safe if they buy out Anfield's current owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

DIC, the investment arm of the Dubai government, are keen to keep the Liverpool fans on their side, knowing how much the Kop reveres Benitez.

Liverpool's manager has been concerned about the uncertainty seizing Anfield, amid speculation that DIC might replace him with Jose Mourinho.

While the former Chelsea manager is understood to have informally sounded out DIC about the possibility of taking over from Benitez should their takeover go through, it was never pursued.

Liverpool fans voiced their support of Benitez during last night's Champions League semi-final second leg with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. DIC are aware that the appointment of Mourinho would not be tolerated by Liverpool fans, and the Portuguese manager is understood to be more interested in Inter Milan.

DIC have agreed a deal in principle with Gillett to buy his 50 per cent stake but have been told by Hicks that he has no interest in selling. He has pre-emption rights on Gillett's shares but DIC believe that option runs out at the end of May.

Although they are understood to be prepared to force the issue, they are unwilling to make their move until the end of the season.

DIC are concerned that reigniting the civil war inside the boardroom will destabilise Liverpool at a critical point in the club's European campaign.

Hicks has claimed that it was his partner Gillett who wanted to remove Benitez and hire the former Germany coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who is now set to take over as Bayern Munich coach in the summer.

The move was a major PR disaster and has played a major part in turning the Liverpool's fans against the American owners and uniting them with Benitez.

DIC, who have been poised to make a £450 million bid for Liverpool for much of this season, have now made it clear they want dressing-room continuity in the form of Benitez. If the Spaniard were to leave, players like Fernando Torres and Pepe Reina would be expected to follow him out of Anfield.

Mascherano insists: Next Season Liverpool Will Be Challenging For The Premier League Title

Javier Mascherano believes Liverpool will recover from their Champions League heartbreak to be title challengers next season.

The Argentina midfielder feels the club's form over the last few months has proved they have the quality to compete with Chelsea and Manchester United.

Liverpool are 11 points behind the top two and Mascherano said: "The last two months were very good for Liverpool in the Premier and Champions League but we need to repeat this from the beginning of next season.

"We are a young team but have experienced players as well and we showed our character against Chelsea. We played at the same level as Chelsea. We need to improve and keep playing this way. We have shown we have the quality to win titles."