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Apr 30, 2008

Drogba wins battle of the heavyweights

Chelsea 3-2 Liverpool (4-3 on aggregate)

Like two boxers who had slugged themselves into the ground, Rafa Benitez and Didier Drogba must have been hurting after this battering.

After a pre-match square-up fit for a weigh-in the day before a heavyweight title fight in Las Vegas, the Liverpool manager and Chelsea striker were always likely to be centre stage as these two familiar Champions League title challengers entered the third of their epic battles in the battle to land Europe's ultimate prize - so it proved.

Benitez's pre-match jibes about Drogba's diving antics grabbed plenty of headlines, yet while the man at the eye of the storm created by the Spanish coach could not deliver the ultimate blow to a coach whose tactical mastery simply cannot fail in this competition.

The Liverpool manager may have been using a tactic well worn by old foe Jose Mourinho with his outspoken attacks on Drogba and even if his chief aim was to alert the match officials to the balance issues that have long afflicted the Ivory Coast hit-man, he merely served to inspire him into his finest performance of the season in the lashing West London rain.

Drogba can be a tower of strength in a one-on-one with the most powerful of centre-backs, yet his tendency to arch the back and produce a theatrical dive is a habit he seems incapable of kicking. Benitez may have been altering Italian referee Roberto Rossi to the 'cheating' that may have been on the agenda, but his comments ended up having a hugely detrimental affect on his side's Champions League dream.

Since stating his determination to walk away from Chelsea at the end of this season, Drogba has been little more than a support act as the likes of Michael Ballack, Joe Cole and Frank Lampard have stolen the stage he once owned. Like Thierry Henry in his final year at Arsenal, it's tough to be at your very best when your ambition in a job is fading.

Drogba's season of indifference had featured just eight Premier League goals and four more in this competition, but with his chest puffed out and his pride rattled to the point of distraction, Chelsea's leading striker again looked like the man who terrorised defences throughout 2006 and 2007.

An early 'dive' brought cries of derision from the Liverpool supporters packing the corner to the left of the press box and dug-outs, but it soon became clear that Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel were in for an evening that would not forget in a hurry. Sami Hyypia could not have been relishing the task when he was thrown on to replace the injured Skrtel early on. The fairy who walked on an Anfield tightrope last week had turned into a bulldog and after 32 minutes, Drogba made the most dramatic of impacts.

Salomon Kalou did the groundwork by bursting clear of the Liverpool defence and after Reina could only parry his shot, Drogba blasted home the follow-up with relish. His celebrations included a mock dive into the corner and then a slide in front of accuser Benitez. His point had been made.

Even if the first few rounds had been won by Drogba, Benitez has the ability to sit back and soak up the punishment before hitting back and that is exactly what he did in the second half.

Avram Grant's half-time team talk predictably seemed to lull his side into a slumber, yet the Liverpool boss had a mesmeric effect on the men charged with delivering the punches to get him back in the fight and their jabs flowed early in the second period before they found a punch to floor Chelsea.

Benitez had just switched Yossi Benayoun from the left to right flank moment before the little Israeli embarked on a run that would bring Liverpool back into the tie. Fernando Torres' finish from his delicate through ball was immaculate and with that, Liverpool seemed to move into prime position to seal a trip to yet another European Cup Final.

Half-chances flowed until these two prize fighters settled in for an extra few rounds at the end of 90 minutes and it was not until extra-time that the man who started the night with the biggest point to prove struck again.

In a thrillingly exciting opening period of overtime, Chelsea got their second wind. First Michael Essien had a goal disallowed for a controversial offside, before Sami Hyypia gave away the penalty that an emotion-fuelled Frank Lampard converted with ease. Days after the death of his mother, the tears were flowing as he saluted the heavens in tribute.

When Drogba fired in Chelsea's third seconds before the end of the first period of extra-time, a beaten Liverpool and Benitez were given the dreaded ten-count. Not even a late flailing blow from Ryan Babel could change the course of history in their favour, but their immense disappointment should be mixed with pride after a spirited display at a venue they have rarely excelled at.

'I don't think Drogba was any more fired up than he would have been because of my comment,' said Benitez. 'He was playing for a Final and didn't need any more motivation. I have no regrets about what I said before the match. He is a quality striker and I always said this.

'When we scored the goal, I was really positive and I'm really proud of my team even after a defeat. We deserved more over the two games and proved in extra-time that we were strong enough mentally and physically to win this game. I have no complaints. Chelsea are a strong team and they got the breaks they needed.'

I understand why Chelsea lost to them three times in the semi-finals in the past. To win against them is very special.
Avram Grant on Liverpool
The ever glum Grant again did his best to look disappointed after what was an historic victory for his side and you still wonder whether he is achieving this success thanks purely to the team he has been presented with his Russian Tsar, Roman Abramovich.

'This is the Holocaust Day in my country, so this was a tough day for my team to play, but you have to get through,' he said. 'To create history in my first year at this club means so much to me. We have overcome so many problems and this is a time to say well done to everyone at the club. I'm proud of my players and hopefully I get less criticism personally now. I needed to prove more than another manager that I can handle this and I've created history.

'Rafa Benitez is a great manager. He has great tactics and made it very difficult to play against him because you have to think all the time. I understand why Chelsea lost to them three times in the semi-finals in the past. To win against them is very special.'

So Drogba won a split decision over Benitez in the end, but not before a titanic struggle that will live long in the memory.


MAN OF THE MATCH: Javier Mascherano

The Argentine battler did not deserve to finish this game as a loser after an all-action display from start to finish. He must now be the world's premier defensive midfielder.

ANFIELD AFFECTION: Liverpool officials didn't allow the magnitude of this game to blur their attention to detail and the basket of flowers handed to a grieving Frank Lampard prior to kick-off was a nice touch.

PENALTY DRAMA: Sami Hyypia seemed to have been fouled in the box at the start of the second period of extra time. Had the decision gone in Liverpool's favour, this tie could have turned. Arsenal fans will not have any sympathy after their spot-kick misery in the quarter-finals.

OWNER SYMPATHY: Benitez revealed Liverpool co-owner Tom Hicks visited his dressing room after the game to compliment the team on their effort.

DROGBA HITS BACK: 'What Benitez said about me was very personal and I didn't like it. I'm doing my best to promote English football and maybe he didn't like the idea of Liverpool losing. This is finished now. We are in the Final.'

GRANT IS DOWN: You had to laugh as Steven Gerrard inadvertently barged over Avram Grant as he retrieved the ball moments before the half-time break. The poor old Israeli coach just couldn't help but look like a fool even on the greatest night of his career.

VERDICT: After the gloom and tedium of the two previous ties between these two giants, we had a battle fit for a Champions League semi-final. This epic brawl could have gone either way, but Chelsea were left to celebrate the narrowest of victories.


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