Now that’s what a semi-final should be! Chelsea finally achieved their dream of a place in the UEFA Champions League final by holding off Liverpool FC by an aggregate of 4-3, 3-2 in yesterday’s match.
The night was filled with drama, emotion and controversy and that was even before I sat down to watch the match! My long-running saga with a major electronics outlet chain continued yesterday as I sought to finally have my new HDTV delivered. The delivery finally came through but not in time to watch this match on the new TV. So in low-def, here’s what I saw.
The second leg started with pace and purpose and the action flowed from end-to-end. A bad break early for Liverpool as Skrtel picks up a knock after making an excellent saving tackle on Didier Drogba. Hyypia had to come on around the 20 minute mark to replace him. Skrtel is definitely the stronger defender of the two at the moment and more importantly it limited Benitez’ substitutions going forward.
The pitch conditions were tough as the rain beat down heavily through large parts of the match. The field looked sloppy but both sides were moving the ball quickly and efficiently and took turns playing good, patient possession football. The game broke open in the 33rd minute as Frank Lampard made a wonderful long outlet pass to Solomon Kalou whose strike was parried by Reina but the rebound fell right at Didier Drogba’s feet and he thumped it home on the short side to give Chelsea a lead. Liverpool’s backline was static and out of position — Riise had drifted way too far into the middle instead of noticing Drogba’s back post run which left him with time and space to score.
Quick rant on the goal — The TV analysts point to Kalou being marginally offside but they have the benefit of a slowed down aerial view to make their call. Just once I wish the TV coverage would give us a field-level game speed replay so that the viewers could see what the assistant referee is seeing. The officials might garner a little more sympathy in their decision making.
The lead held through half-time and into the 64th minute when, with his first real positive contribution to the match, Yossi Benayoun weaved through the Chelsea defence and slotted a through-ball for Torres to run onto. Torres was clinical as usual and cooly finished to level the match and take the away-goal advantage out of the equation. That goal was Liverpool’s first at Stamford Bridge in over 800 minutes of football, spanning nine matches, and held up through the rest of the 90 minutes to take us to extra-time. I found it odd that Benayoun started on the left flank and his only real success came when he switched over to the right side where he seems more comfortable. It may have been that Benitez was saving Babel for later in the game but one wonders had Babel and Benayoun both started if the game might have gone a bit different. I’ve said it all season and I’ll repeat it again. Dirk Kuyt is not a right winger and though he works his socks off, he just doesn’t have the pace or clever dribbling that you’d like to see from that position. It’s an area that Liverpool need to address for next season. I think the core of their team is solid and with a bit of tweaking they can contend again.
Through regular time I was impressed that Ballack and Lampard actually seemed to have an understanding in central midfield. It seemed to me that Lampard actually dropped a little deeper more often and acted as a deep lying playmaker in something reminiscent of what Andrea Pirlo does so well for AC Milan and Italy. On the other side of the ball, Steven Gerrard was invisible far too often in this match.
What would this game have been without a little controversy? First, Michael Essien’s strike was ruled out for an offisde call and shortly thereafter a penalty was awarded to Chelsea when Hyypia wiped out Ballack just inside the area. Ballack, who so cooly score a penalty against United at the weekend, did not take the penalty. Instead, the pressure-filled task fell on the already burdened shoulders of Frank Lampard.
I’ve never been a big Frank Lampard booster, I think he’s a great talent perhaps not the world-class player he’s often rated as but no doubt a top professional and a great striker and passer of the ball. After the difficult week he endured, it was nice to see him hold his nerve in extra-time and score the penalty. He seemed to be on the verge of tears as he celebrated with his teammates and kissed the armband worn in honor of his mother Pat, who recently passed away from pneumonia. Lampard held himself together and then acknowledged his father, Frank senior, in the stands. It was a touching moment and as crass as it may sound, I don’t think his grief should be treated as mere fodder for entertainment, it added to the overall drama of the match. Martin Samuel of The Times newspaper writes about Lampard at length.
I would be remiss to mention Lampard’s emotions surrounding this match without also mentioning those of his manager Avram Grant. Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel, which was why Grant was wearing a black armband. Grant has suffered so many jokes about his appearance and demeanor not to mention the speculation about his future as Chelsea manager. Grant summed it up in his post-match press conference:
“My father, who survived the Holocaust, buried my grandfather with his own hands, so this day always has an extra significance. My father was the most optimistic and strong person I have ever known, so to reach the Champions League final today of all days was unbelievable.”
“My father was the most optimistic and strong person I have ever known, so to reach the Champions League final today of all days was unbelievable.” — Chelsea Manager Avram Grant
Hyypia was later fouled inside the Chelsea area and I felt he had a legitimate claim for a penalty but none was given. The referee was in good position and judged that no foul had occurred. Hyypia got up and jawed with John Terry and the barbarian in me hoped for a good scrap between the two. But alas, that was not to be.
To rub a little salt in the wound, Didier Drogba struck again early in the second extra-time period from a tidy give-and-go with Anelka and that nearly killed the game off. We were treated to a nervy final three minutes after Petr Cech turned Ryan Babel’s speculative long-range effort into a goal. Cech could have done better but the conditions may have played a part in that goal. Chelsea saw out the last few minutes and at the final whistle the Bridge erupted in celebration.
Lampard had a strong effort today and even though he’s a sentimental pick for Man of the Match, I felt his effort backed that up. I’d also give a shout to Drogba and Essien. Essien was again asked to play right-back and was dynamic on that side and made a number of strong runs down the flank as well as having a couple of dangerous-looking long-range strikes.
An excellent game and a true advert for what Champions League football should be. Exciting and positive.
One final note — The Football365 site has an excellent summary of what the various English papers are saying today. Worth a read for sure.
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