The Guardian, Kevin McCarra: “Liverpool’s disbelief must be very nearly as great as their despair. Nobody had anticipated that this Champions League quarter-final could be settled in the first leg, but the position is now all but irretrievable. The plans of the Chelsea manager Guus Hiddink frequently exposed hitherto unsuspected flaws in Liverpool’s defensive organisation, to such an extent that the right-back Branislav Ivanovic scored twice at corners.”
Daily Telegraph, Henry Winter: “Essien’s marking job on Steven Gerrard drained the life out of Liverpool while Martin Skrtel chose the worst moment to have a shocker in defence. Rafa Benitez’s zonal marking system was also ripped to shreds. The only down side for Chelsea was the booking for their captain John Terry, which rules him out of next Tuesday’s meeting at the Bridge. A tie that had begun so promisingly for Liverpool now looks set for disappointment.”
The Times, Matt Hughes: “Ivanovic, 25, is arguably the most unexpected match-winning hero to emerge this season — he had only started one Champions League match for Chelsea before last night, was playing out of position at right back and was involved only because of injuries to Paulo Ferreira and José Bosingwa. “They were my first goals for the club and I’m very happy,” Ivanovic said.”
The Independent, Sam Wallace: “The epitaph to Liverpool’s Champions League campaign should it end, as expected, at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday will read simply: they marked zonally. It was the spectre of zonal marking that haunted the old Luiz Felipe Scolari regime at Chelsea earlier this season and it proved just as debilitating to Liverpool last night when at corners they twice lost Ivanovic, the hitherto uncelebrated Serb, who scored two identical goals for Chelsea.”
Official Chelsea FC Website: “What a way to end a seven-game run without an away win in Europe! Branislav Ivanovic’s first two goals for Chelsea plus yet another Didier Drogba strike against Liverpool have put Chelsea firmly in the driving seat.”
Everything’s been a bit quiet lately. Not only in terms of press coverage regarding Chelsea but also on the blog. Maybe it’s because Hiddink has been the first manager to bring a sense of normality to the club since Roman took over. Claudio’s one season ride was a crazy journey full of highs, lows and cash. Jose arrived and we became the best team in England for two seasons, experiencing unparalleled success. Then the nightmares of Avram and Phil enabled fans to vent their fury on a regular basis. But now, everything’s going fine. There’s nothing spectacular about the way we’re playing but there haven’t been any disasters thus far so we can’t complain really. It looked as if Guus could perhaps turn around a potentially calamitous season which reached its lowest point with a 3-0 embarrassment at Old Trafford, by guiding us to the most unlikely glory in Rome come May. That was the plan until the Champions League draw a couple of weeks ago. Some think that the premier European competition should result in the best sides across Europe facing up against one another in titanic battles between the biggest clubs in England, Spain, Italy, Germany… But that’s a little too much to ask when TV revenue is involved. The Champions League must now involve the top three or even four clubs in the various European leagues and a pointless group stage, the result of which is a slight sense of apathy towards the competition amongst English fans as we again see four English sides in the quarter-finals. So when it’s Liverpool versus Chelsea for the fifth successive season, fans, journalists and even neutrals have struggled to find anything new to get excited about. It’ll be full of head to heads as spine comes up against spine; Cech, Terry, Lampard and Drogba against Reina, Carragher, Gerrard and Torres. “It’ll be tight, nervy and cautious,” said Andy Gray before the match and that was the expectation amongst all of us. But when has football ever been that predictable?
How would Guus combat the rampaging Gerrard and Torres? What would he consider to be a good result? A 0-0 would leave us a nervy one-game shootout at Stamford Bridge but going for the away goal could leave us vulnerable to a Liverpool counter attack. In the end Guus made some subtle changes to the 4-3-3 which has usually ended in failure against Liverpool in the Champions League. We went in with a 4-2-3-1 to match up against Liverpool with Essien and Ballack holding, Lampard given a free role behind Drogba and Kalou and Malouda on the wings. Ivanovic was again at right-back to combat the height and pace of Riera with the only negative being Carvalho’s injury, meaning we had to again rely on Alex marking Torres. As the game panned out it was clear that the game would be won by whichever midfield came out on top and it would be up to Essien to mark Gerrard out of the game. Would Guus stick to his pre-match plan to attack Liverpool and look for the away goal? Well in the end he and the team did a lot more than that…
The side appeared focused and determined, ready to ignore that ridiculous Liverpool ritual of singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and wanting to show the rest of Europe that the real Chelsea were back. The Scolari nightmare was well and truly over and we were now ready to beat the biggest and best sides in Europe. This determination was even shown at the toss with Terry contesting the referee’s coin toss, knowing how crucial a role the Kop end can play in the second half of games.
The opening stages saw some cagey sparring until Liverpool burst into life. A lovely back heel from Kuyt sent Arbeloa running in behind a sleeping Malouda down the right wing. His pull back found an unmarked Torres (yep, we thought it’d be alright to leave one of the best players in the world unmarked on the penalty spot), who easily swept the ball home. So we were 1-0 down after six minutes and some of us may have been thinking the worst. That apathy many of us were feeling before the game appeared to be ringing true after our sloppy opening. But in a strange way, that goal was one of the best things that could have happened for us. It woke us up and made the game a lot simpler for us. There was no point hanging back anymore, we had to score. And so we settled down and started passing the ball brilliantly. Almost straight from the restart, a lovely Kalou through ball found Drogba who strode forward onto a one-on-one with Reina. A lack of composure and technique typified his finish as he blasted it into Reina’s chest with the goal gaping. My heart sunk, knowing how few chances we’d get (or so I thought). But we forgot this missed opportunity and continued to play some great stuff. Gerrard was anonymous thanks to Essien’s awesome performance, Malouda and Kalou were having their best games for months and our midfield were bossing the game. Even Drogba was terrorising their centre-backs. It was almost perfect apart from the finishing. Some great play from Ballack on the left wing gave Drogba an easy chance on his left foot from eight yards in front of the Kop. Guus was already celebrating on the touchline, but was shocked to see him blaze it over. It was looking like ‘one of those games’ but then we started to gain a few corners. The delivery was a little hit and miss but we had clearly targeted set-pieces as a way to get that away goal and so it arrived. A Malouda corner was brilliantly headed in from Ivanvoic as he fought his way past the Liverpool markers. That was the least we deserved from a brilliant first half.
The pundits expected the second half to be a much more cagey affair compared to the open and attacking first half. But we were having none of that. We wanted the second goal to kill off the tie and Drogba nearly got it. A lovely Lampard through ball sent Drogba past a stricken Skrtel but his left foot shot was somehow cleared off the line by Carragher. It looked like we’d never get the goals our play deserved. But then Ivanovic popped up again. A lovely Lampard corner was banged in with a bullet header from our free-scoring Serbian and the crowd went wild. Well the Chelsea section did anyway. We were playing beautiful football, Liverpool had offered nothing since the sixth minute and the Anfield crowd were dead. All you could hear were the few thousand Chelsea fans chanting and the performance was verging on perfection. We were passing the ball around with ease, Essien was patrolling midfield like a rampaging bull and our defence was sweeping up their weak attacks with ease. All we needed was Drogba to be rewarded for his hard work upfront and that duly came just past the hour. Cole fed Ballack who showed his class with a great through ball for Malouda down the left wing. He sent over a perfect cross for Drogba to sweep home. It was a great goal which summed up how well we were playing. The only negative on the night was a yellow card to Terry which rules him out of the second leg but some see that as a blessing in disguise, getting his suspension out of the way before that Barca tie! John came out after the game complaining about Alonso’s antics in getting him booked, something we’ve seen from the Spaniard on many an occasion. But that could hardly take the gloss off a famous victory for the boys. As good as the 4-1 in 2005? It has to be considering the occasion.
- The team performance. Absolutely awesome. We played them off the park and deserved to score those crucial away goals. If we can play like that for the next eight weeks then anything is possible.
- The tactics. The 4-2-3-1 change was an inspired tactical switch from Guus. It enabled Essien to mark Gerrard out of the game, whilst having Ballack next to him patrolling that dangerous space between our defence and midfield. Lampard was also given the freedom to support Drogba and even the wingers played well.
- Guus Hiddink. The first manager to outwit Rafa in the Champions League? I’d have to see yes. Not even my hero, Jose, could achieve what Guus did tonight. The less said about Avram’s role in beating them the better!
- Branislav Ivanovic. Why would we sell him? Andy Gray was shocked at his pace and power on numerous occasions in the first half but we weren’t. He was a rock tonight. Not only because of his two brilliant headers but also thanks to his disciplined and relaxed defending. Awesome from the Serbian.
- Salomon Kalou and Florent Malouda. Yep, they both played well. That’s not a typo, as they supplied width, pace and even a final ball.
- Barcelona. Flicked over at half time and well, how do you stop them? Messi is a genius and is the only player in recent times able to be ranked alongside Maradona and Pele.
- Liverpool. Invincible in Europe? Yeah right. If you really go at them then you can expose them for what they are; a two man team with little else. A pathetic showing from them tonight.
- Alex. I just don’t like him. Too slow, too cumbersome and was caught out for their goal. Ivanovic looks like Beckenbauer compared to him.
- Petr Cech – 7/10 – Had little to do but cleared up and claimed crosses with little fuss.
- Branislav Ivanovic – 9/10 – A rock. Nothing beat him all night and his two goals have probably sent us though. A brilliant prospect.
- Alex – 5/10 – Harsh I know but I don’t care. He’ll always switch off once in a game and he’s definitely our Titus Bramble.
- John Terry – 7/10 – His yellow was extremely harsh but was as solid and committed as ever.
- Ashley Cole – 7/10 – Definitely the best left-back in the world and he’s starting to show it on a regular basis. Only let Kuyt in once all night and that was partly John’s fault.
- Michael Essien – 9/10 – How we’ve missed him. Man-marked Gerrard to perfection and almost ran midfield on his own.
- Michael Ballack – 7/10 – He may be slowing up, but his experience and class were crucial tonight. A Champions League specialist perhaps?
- Frank Lampard – 7/10 – Made two defensive errors but seemed to enjoy his free role in behind Drogba. A personal favourite who I’d never crticise.
- Salomon Kalou – 7/10 – Can’t remember him making a mistake. Ran purposefully and hardly found a cul-de-sac to get lost in all night.
- Florent Malouda – 7/10 – Yep a 7. A lovely assist for Drogba and even broke into a sweat at one point. His left foot also provides some much needed balance.
- Didier Drogba – 8/10 – With his shooting boots, he would have got a 10. But he terrorised their centre-backs nonetheless and we still need him. Anelka looks a weak backup by comparison.
- Guus Hiddink – 10/10 – A tactical genius? Saw their set-piece and midfield weaknesses and exploited them to perfection. We won’t have him next season but he’s the best caretaker I’ve ever seen.
Man of the Match
You can choose between Essien and Ivanovic. Both were awesome tonight and they look like being the future of Chelsea after this summer’s clear-out.
All the apathy and boredom some of us were feeling before the match was dispelled as soon as we saw how well we were playing. We controlled the game and 3-1 was flattering on Liverpool in my opinion. We missed a host of chances and should have scored more. It’s not yet over but if we can’t defend three away goals then why would we deserve a place in the semis? Messi and Co. surely await and I can’t wait. The Champions League is about the best in England facing off against the best in Europe and they don’t come much better than Barcelona at the moment. It’s frustrating that we wasted the first two thirds of the season under Scolari but winning the Champions League is looking a little less fanciful after tonight. I’m still buzzing after this famous victory and we now have the momentum. We were undoubtedly the best English side in Europe this week and we appear to be peaking at just the right time.
Keep the Blue Flag Flying High!