Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Match Report: Chelsea 4 - 4 LiverpooL

Chelsea denied Liverpool the glory of another sensational European comeback to reach the semi-finals of the Champions League.

Liverpool, trailing 3-1 from the first leg at Anfield, stunned the Blues with two first-half goals from Fabio Aurelio and Xabi Alonso, who scored a penalty.

Chelsea's defensive frailties, exposed so clinically by Bolton in the Barclays Premier League at the weekend, looked like costing them a place in the last four as Liverpool, without their talismanic midfielder Steven Gerrard, threatened to pull off another miracle.

But the Blues looked home and dry after producing a sensational comeback of their own - scoring three times in the second half to lead 6-3 on aggregate at one stage.

Yet this incredible contest took another twist when Liverpool scored twice in as many minutes through Lucas and Dirk Kuyt to leave them just one goal adrift of an incredible victory.

However, Lampard's second of the night in the 89th minute secured a 4-4 draw on the night and a 7-5 Chelsea win on aggregate.

The home side had been outplayed in the opening 45 minutes and had barely threatened to get on the scoresheet despite coach Guus Hiddink's pre-match assertion that Chelsea would go for more goals.

They had to wait until six minutes after the break for the goal which eased the growing pressure on their ambitions of reaching the final in Rome.

Didier Drogba's effort was deflected into the back of the net by Liverpool goalkeeper Jose Reina, and a stunning 25-yard free-kick from Brazilian defender Alex then looked to have eased any remaining worries.

When Frank Lampard added a third in the 76th minute the tie seemed to be effectively all over, but Liverpool had other ideas.

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez had always maintained that the first goal would be the most important but when Kuyt collected a pass from Yossi Benayoun and fired over in the 13th minute, he could have been forgiven for thinking that perhaps the task ahead was indeed far too great.

But six minutes later Liverpool were in dreamland when they punished Lampard's push on Kuyt in spectacular fashion.

With everyone expecting the free-kick from the right of goal to be pumped high into the centre of the penalty area, Aurelio stunned everyone, including the flat-footed Petr Cech, by firing his 30-yard effort straight into the bottom near corner of the net.

Referee Luis Cantalejo then rightly awarded Liverpool a penalty when Chelsea's first-leg goal hero Branislav Ivanovic clearly held back Alonso.

The Liverpool midfielder stepped up to beat Cech and suddenly the impossible seemed possible.

Chelsea had Cech to thank for keeping them on level terms on aggregate when he tipped away a header from Kuyt in the final minute of the opening half.

Hiddink's side needed a goal to take the sting out of Liverpool's motivation and it arrived somewhat fortunately in the 51st minute.

Nicolas Anelka, a 35th-minute replacement for the poor Salomon Kalou, crossed low from the right and Drogba got a touch on the ball, with Reina only able to turn it over the line.

Chelsea made it 2-2 on the night when Jamie Carragher's foul on Drogba was punished by a fierce 25-yard free-kick by Alex.

With 14 minutes remaining Liverpool's dreams looked finished when Drogba crossed for Lampard to apply the finish.

But a long-range effort from Lucas was deflected off Michael Essien and beyond Cech in the 81st minute and, somewhat astonishingly, Kuyt put Liverpool 4-3 ahead on the night with a six-yard header two minutes later.

But with Liverpool needing one more goal for a glorious victory in this emotional week on Merseyside, 20 years on from the Hillsborough disaster, Lampard ended a stunning contest with his second of the night in the last minute.

Chelsea will face Barcelona in the last four but only after Liverpool had pushed them all the way in a pulsating contest that was a marvellous showcase for English and European football.

Benitez must have wished that Gerrard had been fit enough to play as his contribution may well have been the telling one, on a night when the Reds almost managed to achieve the unthinkable.

Benitez Expects Gerrard Recovery

Liverpool coach Rafa Benitez is hoping Steven Gerrard will be fit enough for the Premier League run-in after his groin problem flared up again.

The midfielder had been expected to appear at Stamford Bridge in the Champions League on Tuesday, but did not even make the subs bench.

Benitez revealed: "He felt something, so he was unavailable.

"We felt he could be available but he wasn't. But it's not serious and hopefully he will be OK."

What was originally viewed as a relatively minor thigh injury sustained at Anfield in the first-leg defeat to Chelsea soon developed into a more serious complication.

Gerrard played no part in the 4-0 League win over Blackburn last weekend after Benitez had said the club needed to manage him carefully over the final weeks of the season.

And he had to watch from the directors' box as Liverpool and Chelsea fought out an epic 4-4 draw in the quarter-final second leg, with Chelsea advancing 7-5 on aggregate.

Next Tuesday's showdown at home to Arsenal looks the toughest of Liverpool's remaining six matches as they hunt their first League title since 1990.

Benitez said Gerrard picked up a niggle in the final training session at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday and said it was "an easy decision" not to play the 28-year-old.

"To lose a key player is always important and especially a player like Gerrard but credit to the other players because they did a fantastic job," he went on.

"Maybe the result is a positive because we saw we can score four goals here and we can do the same in any stadium. We can win a lot of games with this mentality.

"We showed character, quality and we have to be really proud. The fans will be very pleased with the team."

Liverpool Left To Rue Absence Of Steven Gerrard

You could interpret the decision one of two ways. Either Rafa Benitez was convinced Liverpool stood no chance (rather unlikely for a manager indebted to the miracle of Istanbul), or he just did not want to risk his talismanic captain four days before Arsenal’s visit to Anfield.

That Premier League encounter, after all, always offered more hope than last night’s trip to Stamford Bridge. The worst possible scenario, therefore, would have been a less-than-fully-fit Steven Gerrard turning out last night and aggravating his suspect groin in a match that saw Chelsea through to the Champions League semi-finals anyway.

Double whammy time. A big gamble gone wrong, one that Benitez could end up regretting for quite some time. Failing to pull back a 3-1 deficit is one thing, but messing up your title chances along the way would undoubtedly go down as a reckless mistake.

As a result, Benitez trusted in his squad by forgetting about Gerrard (who had felt some discomfort beforehand), and deploying instead Yossi Benayoun and Dirk Kuyt in the wide positions, with Lucas playing slightly ahead of Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano in central midfield.

Knowing he couldn’t possibly replicate the intuitive partnership of Gerrard and Fernando Torres, Benitez went another way, one which had Chelsea reeling for large parts of this thriller.

Lucas, we know, possesses neither the speed nor the energy to fill Gerrard’s boots. Consequently, the young Brazilian never threatened to run beyond Torres or even get very close to dangerously linking up. Ironic, really, that he should score a deflected goal just after Torres had gone off.

The system, in fairness, hadn’t helped Torres, who endured one of his quieter games trying to lose Chelsea’s two centre-halves. It’s not that ‘El Nino’ dislikes playing up front on his own. On the contrary, he loves working the channels as a lone striker as long as support arrives from behind on cue.

Unfortunately for him, that didn’t happen here, Ricardo Carvalho and Alex comfortably combining to tie down the frustrated Spaniard, replaced late on by David N’Gog.

Yet it was a much different story out on the flanks where Kuyt and Benayoun enjoyed a marvelous time. Grafting away with a good deal of thought, they actually represented Liverpool’s greatest attacking threat by choosing their moments to duck inside.

Sat on the front row of the directors’ box, the watching Gerrard couldn’t fail to be impressed. It had been a wonderfully spirited performance bristling with defiance, craft and character.

But for Chelsea’s aggressive response in the second half, another incredible comeback would have transpired. No wonder Benitez was quietly delighted afterwards. His precious team ethic, where no one part is more important than the whole, had prevailed again to push Chelsea all the way in this spellbinding match.

The knock-on effect can only be positive in terms of Liverpool’s assault on the Premier League. Yes, what seemed like an unfeasibly tall order at the outset had ultimately proved exactly that, but the losers left London, not just with their pride intact, but infused with even more belief in their capabilities.

Better still, Gerrard should be fit for Arsenal this weekend. Rarely could a defeat feel so uplifting.

Rafael Benítez Takes Heart For Final Rounds Of Liverpool's Title Fight

Rafael Benítez insisted Liverpool would return to their Premier League title challenge with renewed self-belief after taking pride and encouragement from their Champions League exit at Chelsea last night.

The Liverpool manager admitted "one or two mistakes" says we undermined his team's remarkable recovery at Stamford Bridge, with Jose Reina caught out at his near post for Chelsea's opening goal, but was in no mood for recriminations following a performance that took Guus Hiddink's team to the wire despite trailing 3–1 from the first leg.

"We saw character, quality and we have to be really proud," said Benítez, who has now exited the Champions League at this venue for two successive seasons. "The players did a fantastic job and the fans can be very pleased with the team. We were on top of them from the beginning and did a fantastic job. Credit to all the players, especially Lucas in the middle in [Steven] Gerrard's position. We were very, very close."

Benítez denied fatigue played a part in Liverpool's dramatic aggregate defeat and was unhappy at the performance of the Spanish referee, Luis Medina Cantalejo. He said: "When you play against a good team like Chelsea and make a mistake, you pay for it. We were attacking, controlling it, but one or two mistakes and that's it. We had 29 fouls against us, too. I prefer not to talk too much about the referee. Twenty nine fouls against us. We are not happy with the result at the end. I said congratulations to Guus and all the best for the Champions League, but I was not happy."

Despite the result, the Liverpool manager claimed his players would take heart from scoring four goals at Stamford Bridge – a feat they also achieved at Old Trafford – into their remaining six games in the Premier League. "Clearly, when you lose, you have to be disappointed," Benítez added. "But to lose in this way, you have to be proud and start thinking about the Premier League. We showed we could score four goals here at Stamford Bridge and we can do that in any stadium now."

Liverpool were without Steven Gerrard for the second leg after their captain aggravated an adductor strain on the eve of the game. "We thought he'd be OK but he felt something," admitted Benítez. "It was an easy decision in the end. We saw before that we have a good squad, with very important players like [Fernando] Torres and Gerrard who can score lots of goals, but we showed the rest of the players can do that too. I think Gerrard will be OK for Arsenal [next Tuesday]. We thought he'd be available today, but hopefully he will be fine."

Benítez also defended his decision to withdraw Fernando Torres late on. He explained: "I thought it was going to be difficult [when he took Torres off], so I thought I'd change and put more quality on. Different players can do different things. It can go one way or the other."

Liverpool's Former Football Greats Remember Hillsborough

Merseyside footballing greats have recalled their reactions to the horror of Hillsborough on the eve of the disaster's 20th anniversary.

Speaking ahead of today's emotional memorial service at Anfield, Kenny Dalglish, the Reds' boss at the time, told the BBC the authorities should have delayed the game.

He said: "That's no problem for anybody.

"If the police are talking to the FA and the FA had made that call, there wouldn't have been any resentment or disagreement with the people in the dressing room, neither Brian Clough (the Forest manager at the time) or ourselves certainly.

"It's something that everybody wished had never happened but I think it's also something that nobody should forget."

Current club vice-captain Jamie Carragher, 31, relived the moment he realised the full extent of the Hillsborough disaster.

Speaking to LFC TV, the defender said he was watching boyhood favourites Everton play Norwich in the other FA Cup semi.

"I just remember an announcement at half-time that the Liverpool game had been abandoned," he said.

"It was before mobile phones so no one really understood what was going on. But obviously we knew there was a problem."

Paying tribute to the families for their conduct in the aftermath, he added: "We should never forget and we realise what it means to the club."

Goalscoring hero Ian Rush, who was in the Liverpool side that played at Hillsborough, insists that the fight for justice must continue.

He said: "The build-up to this anniversary has brought back some really bad memories which have made my conviction even stronger that the fight for justice must go on.

"The families deserve justice and I hope that one day they will finally get it.

"My thoughts and prayers will be with them and with the 96. We will never forget what happened that terrible day."

Club captain Steven Gerrard, 28, lost a cousin - Jon-Paul Gilhooley, who was only 10 - at Hillsborough.

He remembered going to bed the night of the tragedy praying the death toll did not rise.

He said: "Obviously it was a difficult time to know that one of your cousins had been at the game and had been tragically crushed.

"And seeing the reactions of his mum, dad and family helped me drive on to become the player I have developed into today."

Gerrard will, as usual, lead the Liverpool players at today's service.

But Anfield will also be full of Evertonians eager to pay their respects and join the bid for justice.

Toffees boss David Moyes said: "I do not think it only unites this city, it unites the whole country because everybody felt the disaster.

"It could have been any football club, it just turned out to be Liverpool. That situation then could have happened to anyone at that time.

"It is something that hopefully we will never see again."

Liverpool Owner Tom Hicks Feels Pressure Over American Sports Debts

Creditors of Liverpool owner Tom Hicks have formally declared his company Hicks Sports Group in default on debts of $525 million (£351million). The figure was raised against his American sports interests the Dallas Stars ice hockey franchise and the Texas Rangers baseball team.

Hicks, who maintains that his American interests are entirely separate from his 50 per cent holding in Liverpool, was formally served with a default notice last week after missing a $10 million quarterly interest payment due on the loans.

The Texan financier is seeking to renegotiate the terms of the loans with a consortium of more than 40 banks led by Galatioto Sports Partners, a New York sports financing group that has lent HSG nearly $100 million.

Hicks insists that his decision to miss the payment is a negotiating tactic designed to force the banks to renegotiate in the light of the credit crisis.

The default notice signals the possibility that Hicks could ultimately lose control of the Stars and the Rangers, but a source close to Hicks said that would require the co-operation of National Hockey League and Major League Baseball commissioners, and that they were both supportive of the owner.

Hick's issues in the United States will raise further concern among Liverpool supporters about the club's future. Hicks and co-owner George Gillett are in negotiations with Royal Bank of Scotland over extending a £350 million loan secured in part against the club that comes up in July.

The pair are searching for a third-party investor willing to take a share in the club and help pay down the debt.

Hicks said he would continue to cover the cash needs of the two American franchises going forward while searching for fresh investors, but that he would not make interest payments until the banks come to the table.

"I'm confident that I'll be able to reach agreement with 51 per cent of the lenders because I will be able to fund all the cash needs of the two teams during the period that I'm bringing in new partners, which will help us to drastically reduce if not eliminate HSG's debt,'' Hicks told the Wall Street Journal.

Cities Mark Hillsborough Anniversary

Liverpool will come to a standstill today to mark the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster.

The bells of the city's two cathedrals and its civic buildings will ring out in memory of the 96 football fans who died at Sheffield Wednesday's stadium two decades ago.

Its public transport will come to a stop for two minutes at 3.06pm, exactly 20 years since the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest was abandoned.

Thousands of people will attend an emotional memorial service at Anfield's Kop when 96 candles will be lit and a representative of each family will be awarded the Freedom of Liverpool.

Liverpool's Lord Mayor, Steve Rotheram, said: "Hillsborough affected so many lives, not just on Merseyside but across the whole of the UK.

"I attended the match 20 years ago and the passing years do not diminish the importance and the poignancy of this occasion."

Sheffield will mark the anniversary of Britain's worst sporting disaster quietly.

After consultation with the Liverpool families' organisations, there will be no formal ceremony at Wednesday's ground.

The Leppings Lane end - where the disaster happened - will be opened, though, and there are three different memorials within a few hundred yards of the ground to provide a local focus.

In Nottingham there will be a two-minute silence in the city's Old Market Square beginning at 3.06pm.

The event in the city is being led by the Lord Mayor and the Sheriff of Nottingham and there will also be public silences in four different suburbs of the city; in Bulwell, Clifton, Hyson Green and Sherwood.

Football fans attending the events are asked to wear their team's colours, whichever club they support.

An inquiry into the disaster - presided over by Lord Justice Taylor - criticised senior police officers on duty at the match for a "failure of control" and recommended the introduction of all-seater stadia.

Families of the 96 remain determined to fight for further inquiries into the deaths.

They believe a Major Incident Plan was never initiated by South Yorkshire police and Liverpool fans were denied emergency medical attention.

A single inquest was held covering all the victims, recording a verdict of accidental death.

Anne Williams, who lost her son Kevin, 15, is preparing for a fourth legal bid to reopen his inquest.

Mrs. Williams, 66, from Chester, disputes official records which state all the fans who lost their lives at Hillsborough were dead or brain dead by 3.15pm.

She said: "It is a big can of worms but it needs to be opened because the verdict of accidental death is wrong.

"Why has no individual or group been held to account for the worst disaster in British sporting history?"

Benitez - We Must Never Forget

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez has explained how he has come to understand the full extent of the Hillsborough disaster.

Anfield's manager, now 49, was coaching Real Madrid's youth teams in Spain when the tragedy happened on April 15, 1989, leading to the deaths of 96 Liverpool supporters.

With the 20th anniversary of the disaster coming up on Wednesday, Benitez said: "In Spain we didn't really realise the real problem initially, but after hearing the stories on the news we then realised the full extent.

"But after I became Liverpool manager in 2004 I have received a lot of information from the people and staff at the club, so it has helped me understand just how important it is for the people here."

Now Benitez believes Liverpool's foreign players should also fully understand the tragedy that has changed the face of the club and football in England.

He said: "It is important not just for the foreign players but everyone in football. It was a tragedy that was so important, it is vital it is remembered.

"I think that for the fans of football in any country, for any club, it is important to remember what happened."

Benitez is a strong family man, and he says: "You look at your own daughters and imagine what it would be like for yourself, it is then you realise what a disaster it would be to be involved in something like that.

"You think about this when you are reading the names (of the 96 who died), you see the families and you can see what it means for everyone.

"I have been really impressed with the families and the effort they are putting in to retain good memories of the victims of Hillsborough.

"The families are doing really well trying to keep the good memories of the people, and you can see the staff here have always been there for them, and will always be there trying to support the families, the club will always be behind them.

"The first time I attended the memorial service I was amazed to see the people and the respect they showed. Every year when we go it is similar because you can feel what the families are feeling."

Athletic Bilbao's Javi Martinez Targeted By Liverpool

According to a report in the British tabloid The Daily Mirror, Premier League club Liverpool are keen to add Athletic Bilbao's Javi Martinez to their squad this summer.

The 20-year-old midfielder is highly-rated in Spain and cost los Leones €6 million (£5.3m) when they signed him as a 17-year-old from Osasuna in 2006.

The 6ft 3in star has since made 95 first team appearances for the Rojiblancos in three seasons at San Mames, scoring nine goals.

However, it is claimed that Liverpool will face competition for the seven-time capped Spain Under-21 international. Serie A club Fiorentina are also rumoured to be interested in acquiring his services.

10 things you need to know about the Liverpool target:

1) Javier 'Javi' Martínez Aguinaga was born in September 1988 in Pamplona – the town in Navarre famed for its loco bull run.

2) He joined Osasuna’s juniors after a trial as a 10-year-old, later taking his professional bow for Osasuna B back in 2005, netting twice in 32 games.

3) His performances with Osasuna B convinced Athletic Bilbao to shell out 6m euros for the powerful central midfielder in the summer of 2006.

4) The highlight of his first season in Bilbao was a superb brace against Deportivo La Coruña in December in a 2-0 away win.

5) The 6’ 3” midfielder soon became a regular in the Athletic team and totted up an impressive 35 games for the club in the 2006-07 season.

6) Martínez impressed in his second season at the San Mamés, too, and has been a big influence in his team’s impressive Spanish Cup run. They face La Liga’s runaway leaders Barcelona in the final next month.

7) He has played for both the Spanish Under-19 and U-21 teams and is widely thought to be close to a call up for the full national team.

8) Liverpool were reported to be close to signing Martínez two years ago, and a Premier League move could tempt him as he admitted he enjoyed the “wonderful atmosphere” in the English league watching on TV. Fiorentina have also kept tabs on his development.

9) He has been compared to Patrick Vieira, and Martinez looks to have a touch of the Steven Gerrard too in his driving run to set up a goal.

10) When Liverpool were linked with Martinez in 2007, it was reported he had a £17.1million release clause in his contract – with the way sterling has weakened against the euro, the Reds’ owners will be hoping that price tag has come down.

Agger In Demand - Barcelona Join The Race To Sign Liverpool's Great Dane

Daniel Agger has moved a step nearer an Anfield exit after Barcelona made it clear they want to sign the Liverpool defender at the end of the season.

Barcelona's interest emerged on the eve of Liverpool's attempt to overhaul Chelsea's commanding Champions' League advantage at Stamford Bridge tonight, and was confirmed by senior sources at the Nou Camp.

Manager Pep Guardiola has monitored Agger's recent return to Liverpool's starting line-up and been impressed with his ability to bring the ball out of defence and set up attacks.

The Denmark centre-back provided another reminder of his adventurous approach on Saturday, when he sidestepped a Blackburn challenge and beat former England keeper Paul Robinson from 30 yards in Liverpool's 4-0 win, and it further enhanced his reputation in the Catalan capital.

Guardiola's attack-minded side are already running away with the Primera Liga title, as well as making a spectacular impact on the Champions' League, but the former Barca midfielder feels there is room for improvement at the back and has made Agger his top summer target.

It is a further concern for Rafa Benitez, despite his repeated claims that agreement will be reached with the 24-year old over renewing a contract that runs out at the end of next season.

Talks have stalled over an opening request for a double-your-money deal worth close on ?70,000-a-week, while Agger has also spelled out his misgivings at frequently finding himself behind Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel for the two centre-back berths.

He is in no hurry to commit himself and is believed to have indicated to friends that he will delay any decision until the summer, when he will weigh up a variety of options.

Apart from more negotiations with Liverpool and a likely approach from Barcelona, Agger can be sure of an offer from AC Milan after Carlo Ancelotti underlined his intention to instal the former Brondby centre-half as the cornerstone of a new-look defence at the San Siro.

Alvaro Negredo Refuses To Rule Out Liverpool Move

Alvaro Negredo today refused to rule out a move to Liverpool by asking 'Who wouldn't like to play alongside Fernando Torres?'

The Almeria striker is widely believed to be leaving the Spanish club this summer and plenty of top teams around Europe are thought to be interested in securing his signature.

With Liverpool lacking an international class striker to play up front alongside Torres, Negredo could be just the solution, and speaking to El Almeria, he was coy on the subject.

"Who would not be happy to play for such a team as Liverpool alongside Fernando Torres, considering their form in the league?" he said.

"I would like to test myself there, but it depends on Real Madrid [who insisted on a buy-back clause when he left the Bernabeu for Almeria] and I have no idea of what is going to happen. At the moment, I am focused on Almeria, who gave me the chance to make my league debut."

Certainly the striker has plenty of admirers around Europe and his form this season has been superb for Almeria, nearly earning him a call-up to the Spain squad.

He admits that he is prepared to wait for his chance to play for the national team and looked at some of those ahead of him in the pecking order.

"I am grateful to be spoken about by the coach. Only a few are chosen and I would like to be in the list, but one must be patient, because these things come with work and effort," he explained.

"[David] Villa is small, he has quality and plays well off defenders. [Fernando] Torres has incredible power, [Dani] Guiza is ready and willing. I think that perhaps I am more like Fernando and Joseba Llorente because we are big and know how to play with our feet too."