MICHAEL BALLACK had been asked how Bolton made Chelsea go from impregnable to imbecilic in eight mad minutes.
Wrinkling his nose, he said: “They could just smell it coming.”
Chelsea’s defending may have stunk out Stamford Bridge on Saturday, but for Liverpool the scent was heavenly. The Merseysiders are still rank outsiders for tomorrow’s Champions League quarter-final decider, but suddenly the prospect of overturning the 3-1 deficit inflicted from the first leg does not seem quite so improbable as it did a week ago.
Rafael Benitez prides himself on his attention to detail in preparing for red-letter European occasions, but a Sunday parks manager could have pinpointed Chelsea’s weaknesses after this extraordinary afternoon, when Bolton came within a few inches of completing the most unlikely comeback of this, or any other, season.
The west Londoners, having romped to a four-goal lead with embarrassing ease, were reduced to quivering wrecks by an aerial bombardment which produced three goals for Wanderers and could yet have squeezed out a point, only for Gary Cahill’s shot — in the last of the four added minutes at the end of the game — to be scrambled off the line.
As he sifted through the wreckage, Hiddink had two consolations: the three points that kept Chelsea — just about — in the title race; and the knowledge that Liverpool do not possess a battering ram like Kevin Davies, who set up goals for Andy O’Brien, Chris Basham and Matt Taylor here.
That said, Fernando Torres is no slouch and the Spaniard will be smacking his lips at the prospect of tearing into a defence which appeared to be built from matchsticks.
Petr Cech, shaky all season, was hapless, exposed every time a ball was fizzed into his area; Ricardo Carvalho, feeling his way back to sharpness, played as if his boots had been coated in treacle.
Only John Terry looked capable of holding things together but the Chelsea captain is suspended on Tuesday. His absence will cause cold sweats from west London to Moscow.
It would still require a gob-smacking capitulation for Chelsea not to face Barcelona in the semi-finals, but Hiddink knows from bitter experience how quickly two-legged ties can be turned on their head.
The Dutchman was in charge of the PSV Eindhoven side which was within seconds of earning extra-time against AC Milan in the 2005 semi-finals, until Massimo Ambrosini plundered a late, decisive away goal. The memory still smarts.
“It was a similar game, because there was a big opponent in Milan and Liverpool have the quality they had,” he said. “It’s true that if we give them any leeway, we could pay for it. That’s why it’s a good lesson for us.”
Hiddink admitted his players had been given a rare taste of his temper in the wake of their late collapse, although their interim manager apparently stopped short of indulging in the time-honoured tradition of teacup-hurling.
As one of the sport’s renowned psychologists, Hiddink will doubtless do his best to accentuate the positives in his briefing to Chelsea’s squad this morning, and there were no shortage of those.
Ballack, so flaccid so often this season, delivered a dynamic performance, crunching in Chelsea’s opener just before the interval after a slick one-two with Salomon Kalou. Frank Lampard was as industrious as ever and received his reward with a 60th-minute penalty, rather harshly awarded for handball by Gretar Steinsson.
And, not for the first time under Hiddink, Drogba was a constant menace: purposeful, driven and always willing to provide his side with a muscular outlet. His two goals — both stabbed in from close range — were routine, but his performance was anything but and it was no coincidence that Chelsea began to crumble when he and Lampard were substituted.
“I don’t know if it’s psychological with him,” added Hiddink, who has seen Drogba rattle in seven goals since his appointment in February. “But he is very composed and energetic. He has given himself and the team drive.”
Hiddink can only hope his engine keeps purring when Liverpool come calling.
REFEREE: Peter Walton (Northamptonshire) 6: There was the odd curious decision, and the penalty was harsh on Steinsson, but at least he refused to flourish even one yellow card.
MATCH RATING: **** What looked like the most routine of home victories was transformed into an unlikely thriller in the final 20 minutes.
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