Going into the second leg of this UEFA Champions League quarter-final between Chelsea and Liverpool at Stamford Bridge in April 2009, few people expected quite the drama and excitement that was about to unfold that night at Stamford Bridge.
For one thing, the tie itself already appeared all but over after the first leg at Anfield the week before, when Guus Hiddink’s Blues stunned their opponents by coming away from Merseyside with a 3-1 victory, and that result came after the home side had even taken an early lead in the tie through their red-hot striker, Fernando Torres.
However, two identical headed goals from defender Branislav Ivanovic either side of half-time, followed by a customary effort from talismanic Blues front man Didier Drogba had for all intents and purposes made this return affair in West London a formality.
These two titans of English football were by this stage sick of the sight of each other, having clashed on numerous occasions in the previous five years, whether it be Premier League contests, Carling Cup finals, FA Cup semi-finals, Community Shields or, of course, in the UEFA Champions League itself.
In total, the Reds and the Blues had met in the 2005, 2007 and 2008 semi-finals, as well as in two group-stage fixtures in 2006, while here they were for the fourth season in a row going head-to-head in Europe’s premier club competition once again, with the mighty FC Barcelona waiting in the wings to take on the winner in the semi-final.
And protecting a 3-1 first-leg lead, Chelsea knew they were yet again moving closer to their dream of being crowned champions of Europe for the very first time, even if they were without inspirational skipper John Terry through suspension. Some might argue that the loss of Terry was evened out when the two teams were announced just prior to kickoff , though, as the name of Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard was missing from the visitors’ teamsheet due to injury.
The shock of seeing their club’s most important player sitting in the stands must have seemed like a final nail in the coffin for the travelling Liverpool supporters who had made the long journey south to the capital, as to pull off one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the European Cup without their Captain Fantastic and driving force now appeared even more remote than ever.
And because Chelsea had scored an unlikely three away goals the previous Wednesday, it meant that Rafa Benitez’s side would also need to match that feat at the Bridge. But the West Londoners letting in three at their fortress of a home in a UEFA Champions League last-eight tie was virtually impossible in the pre-match opinions of most experts.
However, that feeling of being written off by the world at large had appeared to have affected the mood and determination of the visitors, whose pride had clearly been stung by their unexpectedly limp first-leg performance, especially by a team who at the time were riding high in the Premier League, just a point behind leaders Manchester United at the top of the table as the season reached its climax.
Whatever it was, hurt pride, a never-say-die attitude, a freedom to play when all pressure is seemingly off, Liverpool took the game to their opponents, who conversely found themselves stuck in the unenviable position of “do I stick, or do I fold?”
And, as always in these types of situations when a team is protecting such a big lead, they do neither, which Liverpool soon sensed as they grabbed the early initiative , taking the lead as they had to after just 19 minutes in bizarre circumstances via a Fabio Aurelio free-kick.
The Brazilian had managed to fool Petr Cech in the Chelsea goal, catching the Czech Republic international out at his near post as the giant keeper had wrongly anticipated the left-back crossing from a tight angle out wide on the right-hand touchline, only for the ball to sneak in at the near post instead.
Nine minutes later it most certainly was game on when Liverpool were awarded a penalty after a clear holding offence on Xabi Alonso by the Blues’ first-leg hero Ivanovic, with the Spaniard himself punishing the centre-back’s misdemeanour by rifling home the resultant spot kick to make it 2-0 to Liverpool—3-3 on aggregate.
But that, incredibly, was still not enough to see the Reds through, and after Hiddink had reacted by shuffling his pack with the introduction of striker Nicolas Anelka for forward Salomon Kalou 10 minutes before half-time, it was the turn of the home side to respond.
And boy did they come back at Liverpool after the break, fired on by a raucous Bridge and a change of tactics that instead of protecting a lead, saw the Blues now go in search of goals, with two arriving in the opening 12 minutes of the second half to calm Chelsea nerves.
First Drogba poached one back at the near post, with his clever flick being fumbled in by the previously untested Pepe Reina, before the best goal of either leg nearly brought the roof off the stadium as Brazilian centre-back Alex smashed home an unstoppable long-range free-kick to level matters up at 2-2.
And when the ever-reliant Frank Lampard netted from close range to put Chelsea in front for the very first time on the night with just less than a quarter of an hour of the tie remaining, that appeared to be that as far as Liverpool were concerned, with Benitez and Co. now needing to score three unanswered goals once again.
However, they gave it a real go to cause some serious flutters in the home ranks, as first Lucas’ deflected low drive from the edge of the area and then a Dirk Kuyt header put the Reds back in front 4-3 with still seven minutes of the game left to play, and suddenly it dawned on Chelsea that one more goal by the visitors would kick them out of the competition.
That, though, was where the dream comeback for Liverpool ended, with their opponents taking advantage of their desperation to attack in numbers at the death to hit them on the counterattack in the very last minute, and it was Lampard’s accurate drive that proved to be the final act of a quite incredible Champions League drama.