Although hardly a formality, it seemed that the home team held all of the trump cards. Chelsea had travelled to Anfield two weeks earlier and returned with a 1-3 triumph. Despite falling to an early goal from Fernando Torres, Guus Hiddink’s team had played their way back into the game with cool assurance amongst the raucous Merseyside atmosphere and with a brace of headed goals from Branislav Ivanović plus a strike from Didier Drogba, had ended the game as worthy winners. It gave the Blues an excellent chance to reach the last four of the Champions League for the second time in consecutive seasons.
Twelve months previously, they had met Liverpool in the semi-finals of the competition when, after a 1-1 draw at Anfield, Chelsea had triumphed 3-2 after extra-time in as closely contested home leg to take their place in the final, where they would ultimately lose out to Manchester United on penalties. This time however, with three away goals safely pocketed from the win on Merseyside, Chelsea would have been expecting progress along a much less rocky road. In a game that throbbed and pulsated with tension and a repeated switchback of advantage and emotions though, that would hardly be the case.
In the previous five years, Liverpool and Chelsea had faced each other two dozen times, with seldom much to choose between them, especially in the days when Rafael Benitez was in charge of the Reds, and Jose Mourinho had the hot seat at Stamford Bridge. The steadily souring animosity between the two had led to a number of fairly sterile encounters, interspersed with moments of high drama and controversy. The game that took place on 14 April 2009 would bear little resemblance to such stodgy encounters.
In the red corner, Benitez was still the favour of the month and, under his charge, Liverpool would finish the league as runners-up, the warm glow from the Champions League triumph in Istanbul a few years earlier still sufficient to keep the owners relatively happy. In the blue corner was the popular Guus Hiddink in the Interim Manager role. Mourinho was now off in Milan, guiding Internazionale to domestic and continental success after the inevitable bust-up with Roman Abramovich. Avram Grant had taken over and then gone, after failing to deliver in the club owner’s home city Champions League Final. His replacement Luiz Felipe Scolari had only lasted until early February and after late, lamented, club stalwart Ray Wilkins steadied the ship for a single game, Hiddink was brought in to firefight and rescue the Blues’ season. The days of Mourinho and Benitez confrontations were now well in the past, and this game would be in marked contrast to such negative affairs. It would be a helter-skelter ride of errors, outlandish skills and goals galore.
Both teams were without their captains. Terry’s misdemeanour at Anfield with a crude challenge of Reina had meant a seat in the stands. Steven Gerrard was also absent, although his was due to an injury, despite early hopes that he would make the game.
If Chelsea thought that the absence of the talismanic Gerrard, on top of the defeat at home would leave Liverpool in any kind of sloth of despair, such thoughts were quickly banished as the Reds pushed forward in energetic streams of attacks. As early as the twelfth minute, Torres received a pass on the edge of the area after a delightful flick from Yossi Benayoun. Showing the control and pace to lose his marker and open up the chance for an effort on goal, was very much representative of his form in Liverpool red. The consequent shot was however high and wide, and much more reminiscent of his time in Chelsea blue.
Nevertheless, it set the tone for the early action of the game. Liverpool had come determined to give it their all to turn around the deficit from the first leg. A minute later, Lampard responded at the other end, firing in a free-kick from 30 yards or so that skimmed Pepe Reina’s near-post, although the goalkeeper seemed to have it covered. Both teams had given notice of their ability to threaten, but five minutes later, Liverpool would turn that threat into the hard currency of a goal.
Brazilian Fábio Aurélio stood over a free-kick out to the right flank and some 35 yards or so from goal. In traditional style, both teams assembled their taller players towards the far edge of the area, and home goalkeeper Petr Cech stood ready to come forward and claim the ball in the air if the incoming cross sailed near enough to him. The only player on the pitch not expecting Aurélio to clip the ball into the area was the Brazilian himself. Noticing Cech’s position, he trusted himself to ‘fake’ the cross, and, instead, whip the ball into the near post to try and catch Cech out of position.
It was an outrageous piece of skill. As Spanish referee Luis Medina Cantalejo blew for the free-kick to be taken, fatally Cech was already in motion towards the crowd of players on the edge of his area to deal with the cross. By the time he realised that he had been duped, it was too late. Aurélio struck the ball with such pace and precision that although only half-a-dozen metres or so from the post, there was little chance of Cech recovering his ground. The ball nestled in the back of the net and Liverpool’s early endeavours had been rewarded with a goal. It was a single away goal to balance out against the three Chelsea had gained at Anfield, but it signalled the start of a furious exchange of action across the remainder of the game.
Just before the half-hour mark, Liverpool poured more coal onto the fire and watched as the growing heat began to make the Chelsea team, which seemed calm and assured before the kick-off, sweat. After 28 minutes, Xabi Alonso notched Liverpool’s second of the night. Ahead of the goal the Reds had threatened twice to break through Chelsea’s backline. First, a neat pass by Torres put Yossi Benayoun in with a chance but he was hustled out of his stride and the ball ran through to Cech. Then another free-kick from Aurélio was played into the box, finding Martin Škrtel free, just a few yards from goal. The Slovak missed his kick, and the ball drifted wide after striking his knee. The goal was coming though, and after Chelsea’s first leg hero, Ivanović fouled Alonso, the Spaniard gathered himself to fire powerfully past Cech. With just a third of the game gone, Liverpool had already wiped two of Chelsea’s three away goals. The next strike would be critical.
Stung into action, and perhaps out of their lethargy by the dawning reality of the situation, Chelsea strived to hit back. A header from Ballack went wide, and then a couple of free-kicks into the area evaded Reina’s attention, but the resultant headers were tame. Although the home team were pressing, Liverpool were still dangerous on the break and just ahead of half-time, a deep cross from the left found Dirk Kuyt in space at the far post, but his header was swatted away by Cech before an error by the goalkeeper led to a brief scramble in the goalmouth as the referee’s whistle brought proceedings to a temporary halt.
At the break, Liverpool would consider themselves well satisfied with their work up to that stage, knowing that a further goal would mean Chelsea requiring two if they were to progress. It had been a “horrific” first 45 minutes in the opinion of the Chelsea manager, and he demanded an improvement. “We were not right from the first whistle so we had to get angry,” he said. “We gave them too much respect. Once we went 1-0 and 2-0 down, I was worried. We wanted to kill the game in the first half-an-hour. We lost too many duels in the first half. Sometimes you lose your temper but the players themselves knew it was not OK what they did.”
The previous weekend, Chelsea had nearly blown a four-goal lead against Bolton Wanderers. After such a cautionary warning, letting a seemingly comfortable lead in this game slip through their fingers would have been profligacy of the highest order. It seemed that it was the way that the game was heading though.
Ten minutes before the break, in an attempt to change the flow of the game, Hiddink had brought on Nicolas Anelka for Salomon Kalou. Although it had no immediate effect, six minutes after the restart, Chelsea’s Dutch Interim Manager would gather his reward. Liverpool had started the second period with the same vigour that had characterised their opening to the game. A move down their left flank saw Cech rushing from his goal to attempt to cut out the ball but was left stranded by his error of judgement. The attempted cross to expose the goalkeeper’s absence was flawed though and Chelsea escaped. Shortly afterwards they would strike at the other end.
A ball to Anelka saw the French forward dart down the right-hand touchline before delivering a tightly angled low cross into the box. Closely marshalled by Škrtel, Didier Drogba headed towards the near post to get the slightest of deflections on the ball. Although barely sufficient to alter the flight of the ball, the Ivorian’s touch was enough to deceive Reina, and the Spanish goalkeeper kept the trend for errors by the game’s custodians running by deflecting the ball into his own net.
The goal deflated Liverpool temporarily and not long after, a Chelsea free-kick from 25 yards out was rattled in by Drogba. The ball struck the outside of the netting and the stanchion at the rear of the goal, initially from some parts of the ground, giving the impression that it had found the back of the net. Any relief felt by Liverpool fans would be short-lived though as five minutes after Chelsea’s first goal, another free-kick from an almost identical position saw them square the game.
This time, the big striker left it to centre-back Alex, in for the absent Terry. The Brazilian had a ferocious shot on him and when on target from such a range it was immensely difficult to stop. Striking with the outside of his right-foot, Alex struck the ball with power and precision. It flew around the defensive wall and screamed past Reina as he dived towards it more as a gesture than a genuine attempt at a save. From two goals down and looking like their lead from the first leg would be dissolving before their eyes, Chelsea were now level in the game with their two-goal aggregate advantage restored. Liverpool had it all to do again. When the next goal came though it would be the fans clad in blue, rather than those in red, celebrating.
Just past the hour mark, Benayoun tried to pounce on a shot parried out by Cech, but a recovering Ivanović intercepted bravely with his head. With the Reds compelled to push forwards now, there was a chance of being stung on the break by Chelsea, but it was a risk they had to take. A ball down the inside-right channel found Drogba tussling with Jamie Carragher. It was the Ivorian’s element. Not only did he shrug off the Liverpool defender’s attention, muscularly throwing him off balance, he also drew the covering defender, Škrtel, towards him, creating a huge gap into which Michael Ballack galloped. Drogba squared the ball expertly into the German’s path, but Ballack’s shot was tame and Reina smothered comfortably.
Liverpool’s efforts were now becoming more and more forced. A turn and shot by Torres from some 25 yards flew wide, and merely sacrificed possession as the blue line efficiently guarded the edge of their penalty area. Then, trying to play their way out of trouble, Liverpool conceded again. A poor pass was intercepted by Ballack, who fed the ball to Drogba driving into the left side of the penalty area. In the way he had garnered so many of his Chelsea goals, Frank Lampard made a late run into the box and when Drogba pulled the ball back across the goalmouth, the England midfielder was there to play it low under Reina’s body and Chelsea were ahead. With around 15 minutes to play, and Liverpool now needing three goals, it looked like a done deal again. But there was still plenty of drama left in this one.
Benitez had already sent on Albert Riera for Javier Mascherano, and he now also despatched David Ngog onto the field for Torres. For some, it looked as if the Reds’ manager was throwing in the towel by replacing the team’s most potent striker, with a downgraded version. On the pitch however, his players were certainly in no mood to concede defeat.
On 80 minutes, Ballack nearly put the issue beyond debate, but his free-kick evaded Reina’s post. Over the next two minutes though, Liverpool would throw the whole tie into the melting pot again. First, a speculative effort by Lucas, deflected off Michael Essien leaving Cech stranded, to bring the scores level again. Then, barely sixty seconds later, a Riera cross from the left found a scandalously unmarked Kuyt no more than six yards from goal, and the Dutchman put Liverpool ahead.
With the flood of goals, Liverpool had now surpassed Chelsea’s haul of away strikes, meaning that, at 3-4 in this game, one more strike would swing the entire tie in the Merseyside club’s favour. Benitez played his last card, throwing Ryan Babel into the fray to replace Álvaro Arbeloa. The game was now on a knife-edge and with so many goals coming through errors, deflections or speculative shots, the final five minutes would decide the tie. “Next goal the winner” as they used to say in playground football games. It would prove to be the case here.
Entering the last two minutes, an effort from Drogba drifted wide but Anelka cut in from the left, and spotted Lampard making a run towards the box, slipping the ball towards the edge of the area. Chelsea’s midfielder swept the ball high past Reina and drifting into the net after striking the far post, and then the near one as well, for good measure.
No time left, bar for the amount the referee was adding on, seemed to offer scant opportunity for Liverpool to respond, but in such games, nothing is impossible. Again, they swept forwards, a cross in from Aurélio was only patted down by Cech, dropping towards a red shirt. Lucas fired in on goal. Cech was beaten and it seemed there was still time for more goals. Guarding behind his goalkeeper though, Essien threw himself horizontally to head clear.
Moments later, even the gallant Liverpool players were compelled to yield to the inevitable as the referee brought one of the most exhilarating, unpredictable and thrilling Champions League encounters to a close. Both teams would have cause to lament the absence of their respective skippers. For Chelsea, the first-half collapse of the team’s defensive composure would surely have been avoided had the redoubtable Terry been in position to marshal his troops. Equally, when Liverpool’s exuberant opening had prised open the door to a remarkable comeback, having Gerrard’s ability in midfield may well have been the key to getting the job done.
Chelsea would go on to play Barcelona in the semi-final and after gaining a goalless draw in the Camp Nou with a thoroughly professional defensive display, so far removed from this game, were ahead in the home league thanks to a Michael Essien strike. In the dying seconds though, a shot from Andrés Iniesta would bring the scores level and eliminate the Blues on away goals. It would be another three seasons before they could claim European club football’s most celebrated prize.
From a Liverpool perspective, after a poor performance in the home leg, they had at least recovered some pride with a spirited performance that threatened to pull the house down around Chelsea’s ears, and even in the last few minutes, refused to bend the knee when defeat seemed inevitable. Benitez was less than happy with the refereeing of the game. “We had 29 fouls against us, too. I prefer not to talk too much about the referee,” he asserted in immediate contradiction. “But 29 fouls against us. We are not happy.” At such times all views are partial of course, and in a game both littered and decorated by errors, to omit the officials would be a little obtuse.
For all that, it was a game that would long be remembered by those attending or watching the drama unfold on television. Extravagant goals, calamitous errors and a battle between two world class goalkeepers as to who could commit the night’s biggest blunder. It had been a classic game. Perhaps not one for any connoisseur of the finer points of the game, but for two clubs managed by a Dutchman and a Spaniard, it was hearty British fare and wildly entertaining in a very British thud and blunder way.