Thursday, April 09, 2009

Match Report: Liverpool 1 - 3 Chelsea

Liverpool were hammered in their own back-yard in the Champions League tonight as Chelsea took a huge step on the road to a possible Rome final.

Chelsea produced a performance of great quality and strength to leave Liverpool's dreams in tatters after this quarter-final first leg.

Next Tuesday's second leg at Stamford Bridge may not be a mere formality just yet, but Liverpool will need an exceptional performance to stay in the competition.

It all started so well for Liverpool when Fernando Torres scored in the sixth minute. But Chelsea gradually took over, and two headed goals from Branislav Ivanovic - both poorly-defended set-pieces - and a close-range Didier Drogba strike stunned the Reds.

Steven Gerrard appeared to be struggling for full fitness - and with their captain's powers compromised, Liverpool saw a 14-month and 32-match unbeaten home record destroyed.

The side that has of late battered Real Madrid and Manchester United into submission was nowhere to be seen as Chelsea reigned supreme.

Liverpool had Albert Riera and Fabio Aurelio back after being rested on Saturday at Fulham, while Lucas was in for the suspended Javier Mascherano.

Chelsea had Drogba back up front, and Ivanovic continued as the injured Jose Bosingwa's replacement.

For the 23rd meeting between these bitter rivals in five years - nine in the Champions League - the atmosphere was electric, the noise deafening and the stakes so high.

Liverpool could not have got off to a better start.

Dirk Kuyt had already seen a shot deflected inches wide, before he produced a clever backheel on the edge of the box to set up Alvaro Arbeloa for a laid-back cross which was clinically driven past Petr Cech by Torres from 12 yards.

Yet that just served to galvanise Chelsea into sustained possession and pressure and a performance of growing assertiveness.

The alarm bells should have been ringing within two minutes of their goal for Liverpool when Salomon Kalou pounced on an Aurelio error to send Drogba clear - only for Jose Reina to make a fine, blocking save.

Michael Ballack and Michael Essien slowly but surely took over in midfield, and Liverpool were forced back. Florent Malouda flashed one effort wide of the far post, before Drogba blasted over from close range.

Liverpool were rattled, Torres isolated and Gerrard denied time and space.

Drogba, all menace and muscle, gave Martin Skrtel a hard time - while Kalou was equally dangerous on the right against Aurelio.

Torres curled one effort wide, and Arbeloa missed with a left-footer. But they were rare breaks from Liverpool, Chelsea already moving relentlessly towards an equaliser.

It came after 38 minutes when Malouda's right-wing corner was met with a firm header by Ivanovic, having evaded three defenders in the box as he darted and twisted into space to beat Reina from six yards.

Chelsea went for the throat straight after the break, and only Jamie Carragher's plunging clearance off the line from Drogba's angled effort stopped them going ahead after 51 minutes.

The game had taken a nasty turn by now.

Torres took a painful crack on the ankle from Alex seconds after firing over, and Essien looked to be caught by Skrtel's shoulder in one shuddering aerial collision - before John Terry clattered into Reina in mid air and was booked.

That yellow card will put Terry out of next week's second leg, but Chelsea annoyance was soon replaced by more elation.

A 62nd-minute corner from Frank Lampard was again met by Ivanovic, again unmarked, as he powered another header past Reina to put the Blues ahead.

It soon got even better for Chelsea, and horribly worse for Liverpool.

Five minutes after their second, Drogba arrived in the six-yard box to finish off a low cross from Malouda on the left.

Liverpool's fans fell silent, and the replacement of Riera with Yossi Benayoun before the re-start seemed of little consequence.

Liverpool sent on Ryan Babel for Lucas and Andrea Dossena for an out-of-touch Aurelio, who had just been booked. Drogba went off to a great ovation from the travelling support, allowing Nicolas Anelka into the fray.

The game, though, was already well won by the Blues and up for the Reds.

Guus Hiddink: Liverpool Can Still Surprise

Guus Hiddink has insisted Chelsea must not believe their place in the Champions League semi-final is already booked because of Liverpool's rich history of doing "impossible" things in the competition.

The Chelsea manager admitted the 3-1 win, which leaves Rafa Benitez's side needing a miracle at Stamford Bridge next week to progress, was "unexpected" but said he would urge his players not to take anything for granted, especially with captain John Terry suspended.

He said: "We cannot afford to take it lightly because Liverpool have proved that they can surprise. We will have to concentrate very much. You have to remember that it is only half-time in the tie. For tonight, though, we are very happy with the result. It was unexpected, but it was very well deserved.

"Normally teams would lean back on their defence when they equalise at Anfield, especially in the later stages of the Champions League, but we thought we could do more so we said we had to go for the second. If you feel you can hurt part of their team it would be stupid not to go for it.

"We looked at their zonal marking system and we have some tall, brave players and of course, we got some benefit." His counterpart, dejected but noble enough to greet Hiddink warmly when the two met in the Anfield corridor, admitted his team had made "mistakes" for the first two goals but remained adamant the tie is not over yet.

Benitez said: "Maybe I am disappointed [with the first two goals]. It is difficult to stop them in the air but we could have done better. We had three men around but [Branislav] Ivanovic was free, we made a mistake and paid for it.

"It will be very difficult now. We have to score three goals, but there are still 90 minutes to play. Now we have a very important game against Blackburn and after that we will start to look at this game and see what we can do."

Reds' Reina Refuses To Give Up Hope

Jose Reina has not given up on Liverpool's chances of reaching the Champions League semi-finals despite their 3-1 first-leg loss to Chelsea.

The Reds endured a heavy defeat at Anfield against their Premier League rivals in the first meeting of their last-eight tie on Wednesday night.

Having netted three away goals, Chelsea are now in a commanding position, but Liverpool goalkeeper Reina remains optimistic of a dramatic fightback at Stamford Bridge next week.

The Spaniard told Sky Sports: "The game is going to be much tougher now. We have to go to Stamford Bridge and beat them 3-1 or 3-0.

"But, as I said before, we are capable of winning at any stadium. We know we have to put ourselves back on track and try not to make the same mistakes."

Full-back Fabio Aurelio said: "We cannot let it [the loss] affect us. We have been playing really well and the team has been really confident.

"For sure, the result has been a disappointment. But we know that we still have a chance."

Midfielder Lucas Leiva added: "We know that it is going to be really difficult, but not impossible. We now have to think about the Premier League, and then the second leg."

Liverpool FC Boss Staying Positive Over Euro Mission

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez insists his side still have a chance of Champions League success despite last night’s defeat to Chelsea.

The Reds go to Stamford Bridge next week trailing 3-1 after a first leg disaster at Anfield.

Fernando Torres put the hosts ahead, but Branislav Ivanovic netted twice before Didier Drogba put the Londoners in the box seat.

But afterwards Benitez said: “Clearly it will be very difficult, but in football anything can happen. We have to play well and score three goals against a very good team.”

Chelsea boss Guus Hiddink said: “Liverpool have shown in the past they can do unthinkable things, and we have to avoid that.”

Liverpool FC Have It All To Do Against Chelsea

Rafael Benitez and Sir Alex Ferguson haven’t agreed on much this season. But if the Spaniard is to be believed, then neither would have been overly enamoured by what transpired at Anfield last night.

Liverpool’s late charge for the championship will now take on extra meaning after Benitez’s side slipped to the precipice of Champions League elimination.

Responding to Ferguson’s latest barbs, the Spaniard had declared before the game that the Manchester United manager would be supporting their bitter North West rivals as extra games could threaten their title momentum.

That’s unlikely to be a problem for Liverpool after next Tuesday’s second leg at Stamford Bridge following this demoralising loss.

It was their first defeat in 33 home games and only the second time they had lost a first leg in European competition when played at Anfield.

John Terry may be missing next week, but his absence through suspension is unlikely to make much difference.

After all, Liverpool now have to score three goals at Stamford Bridge to keep alive their European dream – something they haven’t managed for almost 20 years.

The 23rd meeting between the sides since Benitez assumed charge in June 2004, this was by far the most painful for Liverpool.

But as impressive as Chelsea played, Liverpool made it easy for the Londoners by falling massively short of the standards they have been setting in recent weeks.

The defence, so solid of late, was unsure throughout, the midfield badly missed the banned Javier Mascherano while going forward only Fernando Torres came close to his best.

It had all started so well when Torres netted with just six minutes gone. But in truth Liverpool were second best from that moment onwards.

No doubt the zonal marking will again be called into question after Branislav Ivanovic twice stealed in to head beyond Pepe Reina from corner kicks.

Didier Drogba could have had a hat-trick before eventually netting with still a quarter of the game to go. Indeed, Chelsea could easily have won by more as the home side realised the tie – let alone the game – was probably already up.

The portents had been mixed for Liverpool. Chelsea had not won in their last seven away games in Europe, while Benitez’s side were unbeaten in five at home to the Londoners.

However, Liverpool had won only four of 16 previous games against English opposition in Europe.

Since Guus Hiddink replaced the sacked Luiz Felipe Scolari shortly after Liverpool’s 2-0 defeat of Chelsea at Anfield in February, the Londoners have rediscovered their verve with the Dutch coach having lost just one of his 10 games in charge.

This was the fifth successive season the teams had been paired together in Europe, the previous eight matches yielding just 10 goals and often left the neutral cold.

But with Liverpool in freescoring form and Hiddink insisting his side would attack, both sides poured forward at every opportunity. It made for an absorbing encounter.

Mascherano’s one-match suspension gave a start to Lucas Leiva, while Albert Riera returned from his own European ban to augment an otherwise full-strength Liverpool line-up.

Lucas will probably be vilified by the faceless critics on internet messageboards, but it would be unfair to single out the Brazilian. Many of his more experienced colleagues were similarly under par.

How long ago the opening moments seem now. Liverpool exploded out of the blocks at home to Real Madrid and Aston Villa in recent weeks, so Chelsea knew what to expect from the first whistle at fizzling Anfield.

But Benitez’s side took only six minutes to forge ahead. After expertly controlling Alex’s airborne clearance, Dirk Kuyt produced an even better reverse pass to set Alvaro Arbeloa free down the right.

The Spaniard then picked out unmarked compatriot Torres for a clinical finish beyond Petr Cech.

Liverpool, though, were indebted to Reina barely 60 seconds later when Salomon Kalou caught Lucas in possession and sent Drogba clean through only for the Ivorian to shoot straight in the midriff of the well-positioned home goalkeeper.

Curiously, the visitors reacted better to the early goal, Florent Malouda firing across the face before Drogba missing a glorious chance when fed by Michael Ballack, smashing miles over from eight yards when a simple finish would have surely sufficed.

In between, there was an indication of how little time there was on the ball during a rip-roaring first half when Torres robbed a dawdling Frank Lampard but curled his effort narrowly over.

But Chelsea grabbed a deserved equaliser six minutes before the interval when Ivanovic timed his run to lose his markers and head home Malouda’s corner from the right.

Kuyt should have restored Liverpool’s advantage immediately when his low shot was blocked by Cech’s legs, but the away goal muted the atmosphere among previous vibrant home support.

Drogba missed another sitter seven minutes into the second half, although Carragher produced heroics to clear the Chelsea man’s effort off the line after Fabio Aurelio’s slack pass had caused problems in the Liverpool defence.

And the home side showed they had learned nothing from the first half when Ivanovic headed Chelsea in front of 62 minutes, again unmarked to meet Lampard’s delivery.

Five minutes later it was 3-1, Drogba finally getting his goal by turning in Malouda’s cross from the right.

“I think it’s only a coincidence, we will change this,” said Benitez when told the team drawn at home in the first leg of the three previous Champions League encounters against Chelsea had been eliminated.

Liverpool now have no other choice if they are to stay on the road to Rome.

Liverpool's Steven Gerrard To Undergo Scan On Groin

According to a report in the British tabloid The Daily Mail, Liverpool's Steven Gerrard may have aggravated an old groin injury during Wednesday evening's 3-1 Champions League quarter-final first leg defeat to Chelsea at Anfield.

Apparently, the Reds' captain is set to go to hospital at some point on Thursday to undergo a scan in order to find the true extent of the injury.

The England international midfielder is said to have left the field at the end of the game against Chelsea in some discomfort.

Gerrard underwent surgery to correct a groin injury in August 2008 and it is feared that he may have aggravated the problem.

If the worst is confirmed, Gerrard would be unavailable for Liverpool's Premier League title run-in, in addition to the Champions League quarter-final second leg at Stamford Bridge. Liverpool must score at least three goals in that tie if they are to progress to the semi-finals of the competition.

Chelsea Skipper John Terry Rues Champions League Booking

The Blues' star centre-half feels he has been hard done by after picking up a yellow card at Anfield that will cause him to miss the return leg at Stamford Bridge.

John Terry picked up a booking in Chelsea's Champions League clash with Liverpool and will be forced to watch the return leg from the sidelines.

The skipper has revealed that he is disappointed to have received the yellow card and feels that it should not have been issued, even stating that Liverpool 'keeper Pepe Reina did not think that is was necessary.

The exclusion of Terry from the second leg at Stamford Bridge is something that Blues manager Guus Hiddink could do without, but the decision made by Danish referee Claus Bo Larsen will stand, as he thought the challenge made by Terry on Reina was late and reckless.

Speaking after the match, the Blues captain rued the decision made by the ref, claiming that it was a harsh call.

"I felt as though I went for the ball, that's all I ever do as a player," Terry told Sky Sports.

"I've spoke to Reina again and he said it wasn't a yellow card. He already knew I was on a yellow card and he was honest with me.

"It reminds of when Xabi Alonso was booked in a similar situation with Eidur Gudjohnsen a couple of years ago. He was crying after that game.

"I'm obviously very disappointed."

Benitez Fans Flames In Fergie Row

Rafael Benitez insists he does not care if his war of words with Sir Alex Ferguson continues to grab the spotlight.

The Liverpool boss, on the eve of Wednesday night's Champions League quarter-final first leg with Chelsea at Anfield, refused to step back from the ongoing verbal confrontation between him and the Manchester United chief.

"If he (Ferguson) talks about Liverpool, then I will say what I feel," said Benitez. "He talks too much about other clubs."

Earlier Benitez had responded to claims from Ferguson that the team which lost out in the all-English Champions League tie between Liverpool and Chelsea would become the greatest threat to United's Barclays Premier League defence, because they would not have the European distraction.

"I think he is a little bit scared of us," said the Spaniard. "If we continue in the Champions League, he will think that we will lose something in the Premier League.

"He obviously feels that if we are not thinking about both trophies, then we will be able to concentrate harder on just one.

"So he will support us (against Chelsea) because he wants us to stay in this competition because he thinks we are the bigger threat and beating Chelsea will make it harder, he feels, for us in the league."

Wednesday night's tie has become something of a regular fixture in the Champions League in recent seasons, and the two sides have clashed 22 times in all competitions since Benitez arrived at Anfield.

"I am not tired of playing Chelsea," Benitez insisted. "It means we are doing well in this competition because we are both good sides.

"It is hard to find anything different to surprise them. The players know each other really well. I do not see a big difference between this game and the others.

"We seem to thrive on matches against the top sides. It is easier to motivate yourself when you are playing the best because you want to be successful.

"The team at home in the second leg has so far always won these meetings with Chelsea. But we can change that. We have won at Chelsea and Manchester United so we know we can win tough matches away.

"We have enough confidence to know that we can beat anyone. We are handling pressure better now because we have better players."

Benitez will have Steven Gerrard, Sami Hyypia and Yossi Benayoun in his squad after injuries, while Javier Mascherano is suspended.

Although this tie is nothing new for the majority of Liverpool's players, it is a new experience for Spanish winger Albert Riera.

He said: "When I arrived here this is what I wanted to experience, to be at a really big club. I wanted to fight for the title and in Europe and that is happening for me.

"We are fighting for two trophies. It is what every footballer wants and that is beautiful pressure."