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50-50: Liverpool vs. Real Madrid

Champions League 13 hours ago
Read
Apr 22, 2008

It's not stylish, but it's effective

Man-marked by a particularly dogged cameraman, a dejected Steven Gerrard walked off, his complexion suddenly and somehow paler. Yossi Benayoun lifted his shirt over his face in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid reality. Liverpool's supporters attempted a defiant chorus of 'You'll Never Walk Alone,' but Jose Reina's stone-faced expression summed up their true feelings.

A swift and brutal reminder of how temporary euphoria can be and how precarious a one-goal lead often is had just been administered. Chelsea, in farcical fashion, had rendered those thoughts of May in Moscow more unlikely for the majority at Anfield. They had equalised in a most improbable manner when John Arne Riise stooped to meet Salomon Kalou's cross and watched the resulting header loop agonisingly beyond Reina. And they had demonstrated, not for the first time, their remarkable resilience.

Chelsea's performance was not one to savour but the result was. Such praise as they attract is normally grudging, but their spirit has to be admired. In many respects, they did not deserve anything, yet they still contrived to salvage a draw and one featuring an invaluable away goal. Having dragged themselves back into the title race with victory at Everton, a second success on Merseyside provided further testament to their resolve. It is the great paradox of such an expensively-assembled side that they struggle with the spectacular but excel at the unflashy. This may have been the scrappiest of draws, but it could yet be the most important.

In truth, little that preceded Riise's own goal suggested Chelsea would find a way back into the game. Florent Malouda had created, and then spurned, their most meaningful opportunity. But Grant's late introduction of Nicolas Anelka to augment Didier Drogba in attack indicated a belief they could level.

The Chelsea manager, who may anticipate some rare credit for bringing on Kalou, said: 'I feel we deserve to score in the last minute. We have conceded a lot of times in the last minute this season. We made some changes, [with] Kalou and then Nicolas and changed the midfield a little bit. It was a great result. It's not promised us the final, but it's still good. We made a big step today.'

They did, and one man was quick to recognise the reason. Perhaps the most meaningful reaction to the final whistle came from Paulo Ferreira, who headed straight for his goalkeeper. But for Petr Cech, Liverpool would have won comfortably. The goalkeeper made a hat-trick of outstanding saves starting with a block from Fernando Torres, who had been supplied by Gerrard. In the final few minutes, Cech produced a display of agility to tip over the Liverpool captain's dipping half-volley and repel a Torres shot.

He was only beaten once, by Dirk Kuyt. If working hard figures prominently in Benitez's rhetoric, few put in more effort than the deserving Dutchman. Having scored against Arsenal, he repeated that feat against a second side from the capital. If the opportunity stemmed from a sliced shot from Javier Mascherano that fell obligingly for Kuyt to beat Cech, it involved more than mere luck. The speed of thought of Xabi Alonso, taking a quick free kick to release Kuyt, helped initiate the move. Then the Dutchman's habitual industry proved significant, winning the ball back from Frank Lampard after John Terry had cleared. Thereafter Alonso backheeled it to Mascherano and the Argentine's wayward finishing helped his side into the lead.

Liverpool, if anything, looked likely to extend it. Until Riise's aberration, their defence prospered. Jamie Carragher was magnificent in a fearsome physical confrontation with Drogba, immovable force thwarting irresistible object. Sweat cascading down his brow, offering no style but a surfeit of substance, he appeared unbeatable.

So did Liverpool, and it was easy to sympathise with Benitez when he said: 'It's difficult to understand.' He was unhappy about the amount of added time and the officiating in general, but a more pressing concern now is to score the first goal of his reign at Stamford Bridge next Wednesday. 'We will change the statistics right now,' he insisted. 'It will be difficult but we have enough confidence in ourselves.'

They will need it, just as Chelsea required it tonight. As Grant acknowledged: 'It is very difficult to play at Anfield.' Or at least, it is for some matches. There are times - 3pm on certain Saturdays, for instance - when it is no louder than the majority of other grounds, when the fabled atmosphere can appear a myth and when little separates Liverpool from a multitude of other clubs. Then there are European nights of this magnitude, when, until Riise intervened, it appeared even the presence of Tom Hicks and Foster Gillett cannot spoil it. Evenings when Anfield's aura is tangible, when every cliché is justified and every opponent faces an inherent disadvantage.

Outnumbered, Chelsea's band of travelling fans tried manfully to compete with an unrelenting barrage of noise. They stood no chance. They were welcomed by an extended version of 'You'll Never Walk Alone,' that, among other things, drowned out the official UEFA Champions League anthem. The grammatically incorrect assertion that Chelsea 'ain't got no history' was aired.

They may just be making it now.

• MAN OF THE MATCH: Petr Cech - For 93 minutes, Carragher was the prime candidate. But the late own goal gave Chelsea the advantage in the tie, and that would not have been possible without Cech's string of saves.

• LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Perhaps, rather than any of Cech's saves, the decisive moment of the night came when Fabio Aurelio injured an abductor muscle, necessitating Riise's introduction. Liverpool's sense of bewilderment at the final whistle was understandable; bar beating Cech, they had done enough to win the game by three goals with Gerrard, Kuyt and Mascherano swarming all over Chelsea in the second half, Alonso impressing with his perceptive passing and Carragher in defiant mode at the back. A repeat performance - and a different result - is required next week.

• CHELSEA VERDICT: Cech apart, Chelsea's best performer was Ricardo Carvalho, who stuck to his task of halting Torres. But after a tight opening, the majority of the most impressive individuals wore red. Drogba apart, the best of Chelsea's front five was Michael Ballack. But now they find themselves favourites to head for Moscow.

• ULAN BATOR, ANYONE? Grant was asked if the prospect of a trip to his native Russia meant more to Roman Abramovich. 'I think for Roman if the final was to be in Mongolia, he would also be happy,' replied the Chelsea manager.

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