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Apr 25, 2007

That's entertainment

Chelsea 1 - 0 Liverpool

After the euphoria of Manchester United's thrilling victory against AC Milan on Tuesday evening, these two purveyors of negative football had much to live up to.

With three Premiership sides competing in the semi-finals of Europe's most prestigious competition, this was a shop window for the English game in every sense of the word and the fear was that the world would witness a gory and dull stalemate as these two sides locked horns for the umpteenth time in the last three seasons.

Time and again, Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho and Liverpool counterpart Rafa Benitez have sniped at each other in the media with these Portuguese and Spanish rivals clearly uncomfortable in each other's company. The feeling is that the two sets of players doing battle in this game don't like each other too much either, yet for all the animosity, the Blues and the Reds have rarely produced a classic game to remember.

Such a desperate history led many in the press room to offer a less than optimistic pre-match prediction that 90 scoreless minutes lay ahead. And while the fears that these two would play out a bore draw proved to be false, the bright start made by Chelsea soon faded as long ball football and niggly fouls took centre stage.

At least on this occasion, Soccernet's man on the scene could compile his thoughts without fearing for his life. Regular Insider readers may recall this humble correspondent was present the last time these two sides did battle in the Champions League back in 2005. The unwelcome attention of a few Liverpool fans whose determination to put me in hospital proved more important than watching a crucial match was a little mystifying at the time, so the good news two years on is that such a threat to life and limb was no longer an issue.

I was not alone in feeling a little uncomfortable to be surrounded by a drunken pack of visiting supporters as it was Jose Mourinho who ensured Chelsea fans and not rival supporters were standing behind him at Stamford Bridge at the start of the 2005/06 season. As us press filled those very seats for this game I could think of only one message - thank you Jose.

Sorry to sound like a prude, but after the experiences of two years ago, I would much rather spend the evening surrounded by Chelsea followers than the lowlife who purported to be following Liverpool a couple of years ago. And after the first 45 minutes of this game, my relief was even more acute.

Led superbly by Didier Drogba, the pace and power of Chelsea's surges forward reminded all present that this often maligned side have not become serial winners for nothing. Joe Cole may have scored the only goal of the opening period after 29 minutes, but Frank Lampard and Drogba went close to confirming their domination.

From our position at pitch level, we were treated to a fascinating tactical battle between the two old foes on the touchline. The constantly agitated Benitez sent out a team featuring two strikers and plenty of attacking intent, but with Craig Bellamy turning in a petulant and ineffective display, they were simply overrun by Chelsea early on.

Daniel Agger didn't seem to have any answer to the power of Drogba and as the half-time whistle blew, it was hard to offer any hope to Liverpool fans who were, thankfully, some fifty yards away from me on this occasion.

The second half developed into the sort of stalemate we feared might ruin this showpiece occasion, with the outstanding performer in the second half being referee Markus Merk.

For all the praise Drogba has received in this report, his determination to fall over when an opposing player brushes off him is infuriating. Joe Cole was equally guilty of tying to cheat the officials, yet referee Mark had the perfect riposte by asking each and every fall guy to rise to their feet before he embarrassed them any more.

If every official displayed such a firm hand, diving would rapidly become a dying art, so it was something of a shock to the press room when Mourinho appeared on the plasma screens with all guns blazing in the direction of Merk.

'I don't know why we didn't get a penalty,' he screamed, continuing his rant for around 30 seconds. Most of us were honest enough to admit we had missed this 'blatant' penalty he spoke of and when the same plasma screens then showed Liverpool's Alvaro Arbeloa handling the ball outside the box, Mourinho's views were proved to be a sham.

Someone clearly told him of his error before he faced the written press moments later as he had a much more toned down version of events. 'If it was a penalty, then it was a crucial decision, but I can't be sure whether the handball was inside or outside the box,' was his revised complaint. 'I give credit to the referee because he had a great game, but he made some mistakes.'

His views on the balance of this tie were carefully delivered. 'This is a positive result,' he said. 'Liverpool are strong at home and they will now have the advantage of resting players for their game at Portsmouth on Saturday, but we will go to Anfield feeling confident.'

Rafa Benitez was not about to get drawn into another war of words with Mourinho. 'We can take the positives from our league game against Chelsea when we beat them 2-0 this season,' he said. 'If we do it again this time, we will be there, but we play a team good on counter attack so it will be difficult.'

This tie was never going to beat the first Champions League semi-final for sheer entertainment value and many still feel Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has doubts about Mourinho's long-term future at the club because of his failure to sprinkle joy in his team.

Winning is a habit this brilliant coach has mastered, but he has yet to find the knack of doing it with style.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Markus Merk - Something of an unusual choice for this award, the German referee handled what could have been a difficult game with class. He made the odd minor mistake, but more than made up for those with some perfectly judged decisions.

FOOD WATCH: A late arrival due to transport problems meant there was little time for hot food, so the selection of cheese and salads was on the menu. The piece of chocolate cake also went down well at half time.

THE TROUBLE WITH CRAIG: The word on the grapevine has long been that this annoying little Welshman will be shown the Anfield door this summer and on this display, he won't be missed. He spent his 51 minutes on the field pulling shirts and picking petty fights with Chelsea defenders who generally ignored his petulance.

INSIDER VERDICT: This is the perfect result for Chelsea. For a team that thrive on playing counter-attacking football, the idea of an opponent being forced to takes chances against them must set Mourinho's pulse racing. He will be taking his team to Athens in the middle of May.

• Email newsdesk@soccernet.com with your thoughts.