Chelsea Still Best Team in the World After Rollercoaster at the Bridge
Barney Corkhill's Unofficial World Club Championship (UWCC) saw another defence today as champions Chelsea took on former champions Liverpool in the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinal.
Chelsea were the favourites going into the match, having a 3-1 lead after the first-leg, as well as the home advantage. They had, however, conceded three times to Bolton at the weekend, exactly the feat Liverpool were looking to achieve tonight.
Liverpool were coming into this match on the back of a comfortable 4-0 win over Blackburn, and were looking to reclaim the UWCC title after Chelsea took it off them in the first leg of this tie.
All the pre-match talk was about whether Liverpool could summon the "Istanbul spirit" and pull off another great comeback. They would need all their resilience if they were to do so.
What followed was something no-one could have predicted; a rollercoaster match at Stamford Bridge that ended up 4-4—meaning Chelsea progressed, winning 7-5 on aggregate.
Despite needing to score at least three goals to overturn the deficit, Liverpool started with just Fernando Torres up-front, and with Steven Gerrard sitting in the stands, having not even been named on the bench.
Torres had the first clear-cut opening of the match fairly early on, but his left foot shot sailed high and wide past Chelsea's goal.
The travelling Liverpool fans didn't have long to wait for something to cheer about, however, as Fabio Aurelio out-smarted Petr Cech to give Liverpool the lead just seven minutes later.
The Brazilian saw that Cech was edging out towards the group of players in the middle, anticipating a cross, so he curled a shot into the near post, and past the desperate reach of the back-tracking Cech.
Liverpool had a vital goal which gave them hope.
They were handed even more hope just a few minutes later, as Xabi Alonso was hauled down in the penalty area by Branislav Ivanovic, Chelsea's hero of the first-leg.
The Spaniard picked himself up, dusted himself off, and remained cool and calm under immense pressure to fire in the spot-kick, giving Liverpool a 2-0 lead. The spirit of Istanbul seemed to be rising once more.
Guus Hiddink's worry was evident as he replaced Salomon Kalou with Nicolas Anelka just after the half hour mark.
It was Liverpool who were pushing on for a third towards the end of the first-half, however, and they came close on a number of occasions, thanks in no small part to the suspect goalkeeping of Petr Cech, who looked like he had been rattled by his earlier error.
No doubt Hiddink told Cech to calm down during the half-time interval, but the errors kept coming immediately after the break, as he was beaten to the ball by Lucas Leiva, who knocked it back to Fabio Aurelio, only for the left-back to over-hit his cross.
It was a goalkeeping error at the other end that brought the next goal, however, as Pepe Reina couldn't react to Didier Drogba's touch from Nicolas Anelka's cross quick enough.
The big Ivorian striker just nipped in at the near post, slightly altering the direction of the ball, causing Reina to knock it into his own net.
Drogba then came agonizingly close to levelling the scores on the night with a 25-yard free-kick that went inches wide. Half of Stamford Bridge thought it had gone in, and were left scratching their heads, wondering why it hadn't been given.
There was no disputing whether Alex's free-kick from a similar position just a few minutes later went in, however. The big centre-back hammered the ball past the wall and left Reina grasping thin air.
In just under 15 minutes, Chelsea had undone all of Liverpool's hard work in the first-half, making it 5-3 on aggregate.
It could have been 6-3 just after the hour mark as Didier Drogba muscled his way into a good position, dragging the ball back for Michael Ballack, who hit a tame shot which was fairly comfortable for Reina.
They barely had to wait another ten minutes to seemingly put the tie beyond doubt, however, as Drogba again dragged the ball back, this time to Frank Lampard, who slotted the ball just under Reina's outstretched arm.
3-2 on the night and 6-3 on aggregate. Game over, surely?
Rafa Benitez seemed to think so, taking off the ineffectual Fernando Torres and replacing him with David N'Gog. He may have been regretting that decision soon after, however, as Gerrard's replacement Lucas saw his shot deflect off Michael Essien and into the back of the net.
Lucas, therefore, was the third Brazilian to have scored in the match.
Liverpool looked like they may just pull off the seemingly impossible when Dirk Kuyt headed in Albert Reira's cross two minutes later, leaving the Reds requiring just one goal to make it to the semi-finals, with seven minutes to get it.
The final twist in this amazing tale went Chelsea's way, however, as Frank Lampard all but killed off Liverpool's hopes of progressing with less than five minutes remaining. He needed the help of both posts, but eventually it crossed the line, giving Chelsea a 7-5 lead on aggregate, and making it 4-4 on the night.
It will go down as one of the best matches in Champions League history, as well as one of the most dramatic.
After the four previous rounds of Liverpool v. Chelsea in the Champions League had been tight, cagey affairs, the fifth installment was anything but, and something I think few, if any, predicted.
The match was the highest scoring in UWCC history, topping the Chelsea v. Bolton match last weekend which ended 4-3.
It is also the fifth time Liverpool have challenged for the UWCC title, more than any other club, and the third time they have been unsuccessful, joining Aston Villa and Fulham in that unenviable group.
Chelsea have now conceded eight goals in their short spell as champions, equalling Fulham's record of number of goals conceded in a much shorter period of time. Seven of these have come at Stamford Bridge, making them the team who have conceded most home goals as UWCC champions.
During the match, Xabi Alonso scored the 100th goal in UWCC history, in the process becoming the sixth player to score a penalty in a UWCC title match.
Frank Lampard extended his record as UWCC's top-scorer with his brace, putting him on eight goals overall.
63.2 per cent of voters in the poll said that Liverpool wouldn't be able to beat Chelsea and reclaim the UWCC title, so well done to those of you who got it right!
Liverpool 1-3 Chelsea (Chelsea become new champions)
Chelsea 4-4 Liverpool
(Click here to see the complete history of Barney Corkhill's Unofficial World Club Championship)
Chelsea's next title defence comes on Saturday as they face Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-finals. Can Arsenal become the best side in the world?!
One final note: With the 20th anniversary of Hillsborough tomorrow, I think it is fair to say that these heroic Liverpool players did the 96 proud. Well done.
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