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Apr 8, 2009

Guus gets in the zone

At Anfield, where they prize their past more than most, the taunt is that Chelsea don't have a history. But they do. Not one comparable with Liverpool's, admittedly, but they have a recent tradition of producing winning teams who blended machine-like efficiency with formidable force and who proved redoubtable and resilient on their travels.

They rarely exhilarated or enchanted, but they excelled at exerting control. They were a side with the mental and physical strength to prosper in places where lesser sides lost.

Anfield, in the Champions League anyway, was the one exception. It, as much as the Champions League final itself, represented a final frontier. Not any more. This was, in its own way, every bit as great a statement of intent as Barcelona's demolition of Bayern Munich.

Branislav Ivanovic's brace and Didier Drogba's sliding finish capped a comeback to illustrate the progress made in Guus Hiddink's short tenure. The Dutchman has forged a team in keeping with the title winners of 2005 and 2006, one who can overpower opponents, but who possess a new-found commitment to attack.

Few teams have a deficit and then win 3-1 at Anfield. Few teams, though, have Drogba, reinstated to his role as spearhead of the side by Hiddink. He can be the personification of Chelsea. No one else likes him and depending upon his mood, he either doesn't care or objects particularly loudly. Few veer between liability and legend so frequently, but this was an occasion when he was firmly in the latter category, a fearsome target man intent upon terrorising Liverpool.

His fellow destroyer was hardly dreaded. There is a paradox that, in Chelsea's continual quest to sign superstars, perhaps the two most significant goals of their season were scored by a man who could probably walk along the King's Road without being noticed. A brace of distinctly similar headers may end Ivanovic's anonymity.

The first came when two of Hiddink's more surprising selections combined as Ivanovic converted Florent Malouda's corner. It was not merely the Serb's first goal in England; it was the first by a Chelsea player at Anfield in the Champions League.

It hinted the Chelsea manager had exploited a failing. Hiddink explained: "They have the zonal defence in their defensive quarters and we have players who are tall, who are timing [their runs] very well and who are very brave in going into the area. We could get some benefit from the set-pieces."

"It is difficult to stop them because they have five or six players who are good in the air," said Rafa Benitez. "We made a mistake. We have three players around and we didn't stop him. It was a free header."

The second also came from the No. 2. The template was becoming familiar, an inswinging corner - this time from Frank Lampard - being met emphatically by the unmarked defender. With Anfield overwhelmed by a collective sense of shock, the unusually dangerous Malouda curled in a low cross and Drogba arrived at pace to defeat Jose Reina.

It had long been threatened. The Ivorian was in his element, the one-man attack taking on all-comers on hostile territory. He had been denied by Reina and then blazed over in the first half. In the second, he was thwarted only by a goal-line clearance that was Jamie Carragher in a nutshell; his was a recovery from a seemingly impossible position after Drogba's rampaging run led to a low shot.

Yet the initial action occurred at the other end. Liverpool had started at pace, gaining a reward when Fernando Torres swept in Alvaro Arbeloa's low cross. Rather than folding, Chelsea roused themselves. Hiddink added: "It is a compliment to the team when we had this setback, they react, always. We know we can score. So that confidence, even 1-0 down, was in the team. It's good to see the team going on. If you feel the opponent can be hurt in some parts of their team, it would be stupid not to go for that."

The parts of his own team proved instructive. Hiddink went like-for-like, matching Liverpool in a 4-2-3-1 formation. It lent itself to comparisons, and they favoured Chelsea. Torres was electrifying in the first half, but he was overshadowed by his Chelsea counterpart, Drogba. Lampard exerted a greater influence than Steven Gerrard. Malouda provided more penetration from the left flank than Albert Riera and the twin shield erected in front of the Chelsea defence, comprising the two Michaels, Ballack and Essien, proved more durable, than the Liverpool duo of Lucas Leiva and Xabi Alonso.

Not since Barnsley, 14 months and 33 games ago, had an opponent won at Anfield. Now Liverpool, who ended Chelsea's 86-match unbeaten league run at Stamford Bridge, need a still bigger win there. "We have to score three goals and it will be very, very difficult," concluded Benitez. Now it is Liverpool who need to make history.

• MAN OF THE MATCH: Didier Drogba - He was the subject of pre-match praise from an unlikely admirer and Jose Reina was vindicated, sadly for the Spaniard. Drogba's was a terrific display though several of his team-mates, such as Lampard and Malouda, also merit a mention.

• LIVERPOOL VERDICT: They may have erred in playing too open a game though, given their recent fluent football, that is understandable. Now they need a result every bit as remarkable as the wins over Real Madrid and Manchester United to progress. They are entitled to wonder if Javier Mascherano, booked harshly against Real, would have made a difference here.

• CHELSEA VERDICT: This was a truly outstanding result and Hiddink merits much of the credit. Omitting the Premier League's leading scorer, Nicolas Anelka, in favour of the often unimpressive duo of Malouda and Salomon Kalou was a bold move, but it was justified. With Jose Bosingwa injured, there were several options at right-back. Ivanovic, too, made that decision a managerial masterstroke.

• TERRY BAN: John Terry collected a caution for a challenge on Reina meaning he will miss the second leg. At 1-1, it appeared a pivotal moment in the tie; given the final score, he may not be needed next week.

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