ON THE eve of Anfield’s biggest game of the season, a bullish Rafa Benitez had dismissed the history that in each of the Liverpool-Chelsea knockout games, the team at home second have progressed.
But even the optimistic Spaniard was forced to admit last night that it will require a miracle of epic proportions if his side are to reach the Champions League semi-final after watching his players commit defensive suicide at Anfield.
“Clearly it will be very difficult – but anything can happen,” said Benitez.
“We have to play well and score three goals and have a very good game against a very good team. I felt we started really well but after the goal we didn’t pass the ball properly. We were giving the ball away, and they were passing it well.
“We made a mistake because they are strong in the air – and we paid for it.”
After being given the perfect start from the ever-reliable boots of Fernando Torres, Liverpool crumbled and gifted three away goals to Chelsea, who are now clear favourites to advance to the semi-finals for the second successive season next Tuesday.
Liverpool will be kicking themselves for failing to build on the good work of Torres, who took full advantage of too much time and space afforded to him by side-footing his side into the lead after converting Alvaro Arbeloa’s pin-point sixth-minute cross.
The roar which greeted the Spanish striker’s goal was deafening yet Anfield was nearly silenced 60 seconds later when Didier Drogba, back in the side after a toe injury, found himself clean through in front of the Kop following a fine pass by Salomon Kalou.
However Jose Reina, who is enjoying a fine season, preserved his side’s advantage after narrowing the angle and blocking the Chelsea striker’s effort. But Reina was only delaying the inevitable.
At the time, Chelsea looked genuinely dazed and confused despite the insistence of John Terry, their captain, who stated on the eve of the tie that they would be deaf to the effects of the wall of sound.
Back in 2007, Geremi and Arjen Robben froze when faced with taking a penalty amid the deafening roar created by the Liverpool supporters. Yet Terry had dared to suggest on Tuesday that after enduring so many hellish nights on Merseyside, the fear factor had finally worn off. He was so right.
After Torres had made the usually-reliable Frank Lampard look clumsy after dispossessing the Chelsea midfielder and sending an effort narrowly wide of the target, Chelsea got their act together.
That narrow escape seemed to galvanise Guus Hiddink’s side who ought to have equalised two minutes later, Drogba spurning another opportunity when he should have done better after being teed-up in the 28th minute by Michael Ballack.
Yet while Drogba looked rusty, Branislav Ivanovic was not so carefree in front of the target and the Serbian defender punished Liverpool’s slack marking in the 39th minute when he rose unchallenged to nod Florent Malouda’s corner past Reina.
Suddenly, it was Liverpool on the backfoot. Only a desperate goal line clearance by Jamie Carragher prevented Drogba from delivering a major blow in the 51st minute after Lampard’s defence-splitting pass.
A minor positive on a desperately disappointing night for Liverpool is that Terry will miss the return leg after the England defender was booked for climbing all over Reina on the hour mark.
But Chelsea appear to have done more than enough to cushion the blow of losing their captain in five days time after taking control of the tie with two goals in the space of five minute which leaves Liverpool fighting to save their season.
Again the Liverpool defence went missing as Ivanovic rose to power Lampard’s 62nd minute corner into the net and spark jubilation amongst Hiddink and his backroom staff on the bench. Liverpool’s night of misery was complete when Drogba finally found the target in the 67th minute after connecting with an excellent ball from the left by Salomon Kalou.
An awful end to the most wretched of nights for Benitez and his shell-shocked players.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Didier Drogba (Chelsea): Recovered from a slow start to hammer a huge nail into Liverpool’s Champions League coffin. Proved a thorn in the Liverpool defence throughout.
REFEREE: Claus Bo Larsen (Denmark) 6: Impressive performance from the Scandinavian official who contributed to an entertaining tie by allowing the game to flow without being too whistle-happy.
MATCH RATING: *** This was never going to be a repeat of the thunderous attacking by Liverpool which left Real Madrid dazed and confused, given how well both sides know each other’s game... but it wasn’t far off. This time it was Chelsea who did the attacking.
Subs for Liverpool: Dossena for Aurelio 75, Babel for Lucas 79, Benayoun for Riera 68.
Subs for Chelsea: Anelka for Drogba 80.
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