Branislav Ivanovic has potentially saved Chelsea season, and perhaps even Jose Mourinho’s sanity, from collapse after scoring an extra-time winner in a controversial Capital One Cup semi-final against Liverpool that at one stage looked set to plummet the Blues into depression and their manager into pit of paranoia.
Only four days ago Chelsea were tipped for the quadruple but having lost, shamefully, at home to Bradford City in the FA Cup last weekend they were in serious danger of exiting another competition until Ivanovic’s 94th minute header from a Willian free-kick broke Liverpool’s resolve.
The goal sent Chelsea to Wembley on March 1 — where they will face Tottenham or Sheffield United — thanks to a 2-1 aggregate win, and leaves them psychologically intact (although not physically as Cesc Fabregas limped off injured and others looked shattered by the final whistle) as they prepare now for a crucial Premier League clash against title rivals Manchester City at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.
But it could have so easily been different. Liverpool produced a hard-working tactical masterclass for much of a bad-tempered game that regularly descended into brawling (there were nine yellow cards in all) and which produced moments of controversy that appeared to have Mourinho at breaking point.
The Special One’s conspiracy theory that referees, media and football in general have a campaign against his team was fuelled to extremes by a series of big decisions from referee Michael Oliver.
Two huge penalty shouts in the first half went against Chelsea, firstly when Lucas Leiva saw the ball hit his hand as he challenged in the area — and then, more controversially, when Martin Skrtel clearly tripped Diego Costa but got away with it.
Add in a decision not to send off Jordan Henderson, already on a yellow card, when he was penalised for handlball after the break and perhaps Mourinho has a point — he was incandescent with rage on the sidelines as Oliver stood firm, awarding a free-kick but keeping his cards to himself.
Not that Chelsea were angels, however. Diego Costa, covertly but possibly deliberately, twice trod on the ankle of opponents — first Emre Can and then Skrtel — and caused a mass brawl on both occasions as temperatures rose at the Bridge.
Asked afterwards about a possible retrospective ban for Costa, Mourinho said: “Let Costa play his football.”
It was frostier on the bench where Mourinho and Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers (who has still never beaten his mentor) no longer enjoy the cosy relationship they once had in the latter’s days as Chelsea youth coach (the pair even avoided a handshake at Anfield in the first leg, which ended 1-1), and there was an edge to the pre-match interviews.
Rodgers claimed there would be a “wee bit of trepidation” for Chelsea going into the game on the back of that shocking defeat to Bradford.
Mourinho, by contrast, insisted his team would not repeat the disaster of three days earlier.
“The players are different, the mentality is different,” he said. “Tonight is different.”
Sadly for the Chelsea manager it wasn’t that different because his players didn’t quite react the way he wanted — or were denied that opportunity by a hard-working Liverpool side that closed the home team down at every opportunity.
Mourinho will no doubt concentrate on controversy, as he always does, but the fact that Chelsea arrived at half-time having failed to produce a single shot on target told you not everything was right with a team that has looked like walking the league at times this season. In fact, despite the multitude of attacking talent at his disposal, Mourinho had seen his team manage just one shot on target throughout the entire two-legged tie — and that was a penalty at Anfield that secured a 1-1 draw.
Liverpool actually had the better early opportunities as Gerrard’s cute through-ball set up Alberto Moreno, who saw his shot well saved by Thibaut Courtois. The Belgian also denied Philippe Coutinho with an outstretched foot, while Kurt Zouma did well to deny Raheem Sterling to make up for his own error in allowing the England winger to get away.
Chelsea’s first real opportunity arrived on the hour mark, Costa’s deflected shot (which counted at least as an effort on target) well saved by Simon Mignolet, who also did remarkably well to dispossess the striker minutes later when he looked certain to score.
Suddenly the game began to unravel. Chelsea lost Fabregas to injury — he must be a doubt for Saturday’s big game against Man City — but started to find space; and yet even then Liverpool’s well thought-out game plan held firm. Until extra time.
Within minutes Lucas tripped Hazard — how he avoided a second yellow card no-one could understand.
But Chelsea had the last laugh as Willian’s free-kick was powerfully headed home by Ivanovic. Unlucky for Liverpool for sure, but for the home side a relief. They now go into Saturday’s crunch game with sanity intact — and a treble still possible.
CHELSEA: Courtois 7, Ivanovic 8, Zouma 6, Terry 7, Luis 5 (Azpilicueta 78; 7), Matic 6, Fabregas 5 (Ramires 50; 6), Willian 7 (Drogba 118), Oscar 6, Hazard 6, Costa 7.
LIVERPOOL: Mignolet 7, Can 7, Skrtel 7, Sakho 6 (Johnson 57), Lucas 7, Henderson 7, Moreno 6 (Lambert 116), Markovic 6 (Balotelli 70; 5), Gerrard 6, Coutinho 7, Sterling 7.
Referee: Michael Oliver