For a pure tactical encounter, there is no game better than Chelsea and Liverpool and the two clubs once again put in an engrossing matchup.
Usually a game to massage the egos of both opposing managers, the matches between the two sides have always been tight, tense, tactical affairs with the slightest deviation from the game plan enough to win or lose the game. However, last night’s game had more than one and although Chelsea won the tie as a whole, both teams can leave with the heads held high.
It was perhaps fitting that on the eve of the Hillsborough disaster, Liverpool produced a heroic performance that matched the occasion. Two tactical masters pitted their wits against each other and although Benitez bared the scars of the last leg defeat to Gus Hiddink’s side, the Spaniard entered the game with much confidence.
Each goal represented a press of the chess timer and by half time, Liverpool had already won two pieces. With the king, Steven Gerrard out, the Reds needed a pawn to step up and step up they did. Lucas Leiva was fantastic in the captain’s role but it was left back Fabio Aurelio who drew first blood with a piece of genius. Spotting the ever-growing vulnerable Petr Cech off his line, the Brazilian whipped a low free kick into the bottom corner of Chelsea’s near post. Xabi Alonso, who was superb in dictating play put Liverpool two up from the spot after Branislav Ivanovic had hauled the same man down.
The Blues could not cope with Liverpool’s nimzowitch and zugzwang tactics; the pressing and causing of mistake by Chelsea. Both teams played with near identical formations but Mascherano and Lucas hassled and harried the central midfield and denied them the space to play. Liverpool’s old style play of Steinitz was still there (the focus on positional play to allow for the platform to attack) but threw a bit more caution to the wind.
The Chelsea wingers were forced back by Liverpool’s two of Kuyt and Benayoun as the two looked to come inside and support Torres thereby shifting Chelsea’s full back’s inside and creating space out wide. Arbeloa and Aurelio were then able to attack freely down the channels hence creating more work for Maluda and Kalou, who was taken off early for Anelka to try and pressure Liverpool higher.
Somehow Chelsea summoned unlikely energy to force a goal back although with a little help from Reina. Anelka’s cross came off Drogba and in turn came off the out of position goalkeeper. Alex blasted in the equaliser and Lampard added another to put Chelsea three in front on aggregate. However Liverpool never gave up; Torres went off for Riera moving Benyoun to the centre while in the latter stages Benitez took off Arbeloa for Babel, playing an old fashioned, attacking 3-5-2.
Lucas pulled one back with a deflected shot and Kuyt put the Reds in front on the night though still one behind with a header. Liverpool could dare dream but Lampard finally buried the coffin with another late run into the box and finished off superbly. And with that goal, Hiddink reached over and pressed the timer for the last time to seal Liverpool’s fate.