Liverpool vanquish Chelsea en route to Athens
Liverpool 1-0 Chelsea
The first time it was dismissed as the product of a 'ghost goal', now Chelsea will surely be haunted by defeat at Anfield, because for the second time in three seasons, Liverpool have advanced to the Champions League final at the expense of the Stamford Bridge outfit.
(1-1 on aggregate, Liverpool win 4-1 on penalties)
The competition that cemented Jose Mourinho's reputation at Porto remains tantalisingly beyond his grasp, even with the greater resources at Chelsea and the hold that Liverpool and Rafael Benitez exert over the Blues in Europe was maintained and possibly strengthened. With an inferior group of players, once again, Liverpool have eliminated them.
Twice at Anfield, the Special One's changes have proved distinctly ordinary. Two years ago, Robert Huth became an ersatz and awful centre forward. Now Geremi was introduced as a specialist penalty taker. He missed, or more accurately, Jose Reina saved.
What is it with Liverpool goalkeepers and the European Cup? First Bruce Grobbelaar in Rome in 1984, then Jerzy Dudek in Istanbul two years ago and now Reina. In two penalty shootouts as a Liverpool player, the Spaniard has saved five spot kicks out of seven. The first three deprived West Ham of the FA Cup last year, the latest two stopped Chelsea from claiming a still greater prize.
By diving to either side to deny first Arjen Robben and then Geremi, Reina showed that, from 12 yards, he is unbeatable. 'Some people say the goalkeeper had some appetite for penalties,' said Mourinho. Benitez added: 'He likes to do it. In Spain, he was also really good.'
Over two legs, Chelsea found him in imperious form, and the brace of saves from Frank Lampard at Stamford Bridge meant Liverpool only needed Daniel Agger's first-half strike to take them to a penalty shootout.
In extra-time, Liverpool could be accused of playing for penalties yet such is their expertise in shoot-outs that it is a legitimate policy. The paradox is that they often miss them during matches. After 120 minutes, however, Boudewijn Zenden, Xabi Alonso, Steven Gerrard and Dirk Kuyt all beat Petr Cech. Athens, here they come.
In the process, they may have thwarted an unusually romantic plan from the pragmatic Benitez. Robbie Fowler, introduced with two minutes to go, seemed slated to take the fifth and final penalty. His final touch in a Liverpool shirt, thus, could have been to clinch their Champions League final place.
Instead that honour fell to Kuyt who, until then, had been furthering the theory he is a nearly man. One header rebounded back off the bar, a goal was dubiously disallowed for offside and he could have rendered penalties redundant with a late chance.
He looks like a potentially prolific striker, yet his goal ratio for Liverpool is around one in four. He is yet to find the net for them in the Champions League except, crucially in a shootout.
'Penalties, penalties,' mused Mourinho. 'We deserve to be in the final. In five, 10, 20 years, nobody will remember this was the semi-final, that Chelsea was the best team in the first leg, that Chelsea was the best team tonight, that Chelsea was the best team in extra time.'
Few concurred with that, so what was the difference between the two teams? 'We have two Premierships in the last three years and they have none,' replied the Portuguese.
In Europe, if not the Premiership, Liverpool and Chelsea are evenly matched.
Effectively, after Agger's goal, they cancelled each other out though, contrary to Mourinho's analysis, the majority of the chances fell to Liverpool. Didier Drogba did have opportunities in both halves, but that apart Chelsea were content to contain.
John Terry, Claude Makelele and the indefatigable Michael Essien all excelled in that objective, but Liverpool displayed far more purpose in the shootout than the preceding two hours.
It may be heresy to question Benitez's team selection - the result alone justifies his every choice - yet opting for two wingers meant they missed the composure of Alonso. The system took preference over the personnel as Benitez opted for an old-fashioned 4-4-2 that was reminiscent, in the wrong way, of the 1980s. Liverpool, with Alonso marooned on the bench, definitely did not field their best 11 players. Indeed, Zenden's minimal contribution during the match meant he was almost a specialist penalty taker.
Continental sophistication, therefore, was conspicuous by its absence, though Liverpool's goal was well crafted. Gerrard's quick freekick was disguised and found Agger perfectly-placed to fire his low left-footed shot beyond Cech.
He was not beaten for another 100 minutes, but then Liverpool's clinical penalty-taking ensured their passage to Athens. Chelsea, meanwhile, have effectively lost two trophies of their potential quadruple within four days.
A season that inspired awe is now beginning to resemble Bayer 'Neverkusen' in 2002, that of the perennial bridesmaid.
Liverpool, out of every other competition in January, are closing in on the trophy Chelsea probably want most, and it provides another chance to taunt Mourinho's men. For much of the match, Anfield reverberated to the sound of the grammatically incorrect taunt 'you ain't got no history'. Liverpool do, and theirs could be enhanced in Athens.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Claude Makelele
Excelled at the unnoticed, anticipating passes, winning the second ball and tidying up in front of his defence with unfussy reliability. There is a case for nominating Reina for his shootout heroics, but during the preceding 120 minutes, Makelele impressed most.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Their resolve cannot be questioned and the result is remarkable, but they showed why a winger and a goalscorer should top Benitez's summer shopping list.
CHELSEA VERDICT: It has been one week too far far them. Given that they were signed with the Champions League in mind, would a fit Andriy Shevchenko or Michael Ballack have made a difference?
TEAM-MATES AT WAR: Anfield almost had its own equivalents of Joey Barton and Ousmane Dabo when two writers on a prominent red-top tabloid, after some particularly erudite banter, looked as if they were on the brink of coming to blows. A rapid reshuffle of the seating arrangements was required.
A PERFECT PITCH? Fine playing surfaces are often compared to bowling greens. The Anfield pitch must have been more like a sofa, judging by the amount of time some of the visitors spent lying upon it.
POET, PHILOSOPHER, JOURNALIST? Mourinho greeted one question by wondering which category his inquisitor falls into.