| Wednesday, May 02, 2007
| Onwards to Athens
Not even Jose Mourinho can seriously believe the best team lost this time, not when Liverpool struck once and had another perfectly good goal disallowed.
Not when they had countless other opportunities to score; not when Pepe Reina’s only saves of any real significance came in a penalty shoot- out that brought this extraordinary evening to a close. Andriy Shevchenko sprung something of a surprise when he appeared in the Anfield directors’ box but nobody else turned up for Chelsea last night.
There was no sign of owner Roman Abramovich and there was no sign of a team he financed, either. A team that had won two Premiership titles and, until last week, appeared to be chasing an unprecedented quadruple.
The pursuit of four trophies ended in four desperate days, a third Champions League semi-final defeat in four years coming after a crushing 2-2 draw against Bolton and the sudden disappearance of Shevchenko and Michael Ballack.
Will Mourinho be staying beyond the end of this season? It is now more difficult to say.
His team lacked staying power at Anfield, the physical and mental demands of a campaign that has already stretched to 60 games seemingly taking their toll.
They had no answer to Daniel Agger’s slightly controversial firsthalf strike, no answer to the spirit and determination this remarkable Liverpool side displayed and no response when Rafa Benitez’s men once again emerged as the masters of the spot-kick lottery. First, it was AC Milan in Istanbul, then West Ham in Cardiff and now this.
As Benitez sat cross-legged among his coaching staff on the touchline, Reina and his colleagues did the rest. Bolo Zenden, Xabi Alonso, Steven Gerrard and Dirk Kuyt drove the ball into the net in front of the Anfield Road end, while Reina saved first to deny Arjen Robben and then Geremi.
Reina is a genius when it comes to saving penalties. He saved seven out of nine for Villarreal in the season before he joined Liverpool.
But last night he had 42,000 people Benitez refers to as the ‘Special Ones’ standing alongside him. Just as they were two years ago, the fans were magnificent last night. They sang chorus after chorus of You’ll Never Walk Alone, most memorably just before the shootout began, and greeted every Chelsea penalty taker with a deafening cacophony of boos. Only Frank Lampard delivered. Pity he couldn’t do the same in the World Cup.
It was not the most wonderful game of football but it was one Liverpool richly deserved to win, not least because of their industry. Jamie Carragher was immense, Javier Mascherano was defensively brilliant and what Kuyt lacked in finishing ability he made up for in sheer courage and resolve. Last night he must have run further than anybody.
Liverpool simply wanted it so much more — wanted to reach their second Champions League final in three seasons and write another chapter in the history of a club Mourinho so foolishly dismissed.
The first half statistics said it all. Liverpool had 64 per cent of the possession and a goal that wiped out the advantage established by Joe Cole’s goal at Stamford Bridge last week. They were the better team even if Mourinho could have complained that Mikel John Obi was fouled by Kuyt when he was trying to mark Agger.
It remained a fine goal, though, the Danish centre half meeting skipper Steven Gerrard’s cleverly executed free-kick with a quite breathtaking finish.
Whatever Mourinho said to his players at half-time, it had no effect.
Peter Crouch went close to increasing Liverpool’s lead with a header that Petr Cech saved and Kuyt went closer still, meeting a cross from John Arne Riise with an effort that rattled Cech’s crossbar.
Chelsea also threatened to score, notably when Ashley Cole crossed towards Didier Drogba, only for Carragher to beat him to the ball and clear over his own bar. Somehow, he also earned a goalkick.
Extra time then followed and an extra 30 minutes of high pressure, high intensity football that a weary Chelsea team were fortunate to survive.
Kuyt should have scored when he was sent clear by Mascherano. Cech had to make a magnificent save.
And the Dutchman then did score in the 100th minute when Cech failed to hold on to a blistering effort from Alonso. The assistant referee raised his flag but Kuyt appeared to be level. So much for cries of conspiracy when UEFA selected Spanish officials to take charge of the game.
Anticipating penalties, Benitez then sent for God, otherwise known as Robbie Fowler, and a moment of divine intervention very nearly followed. Fowler presented Kuyt with another chance to score but again Cech made the save.
Only penalties remained, but not before a reminder from the fans. ‘In Istanbul we won it five times,’ they cried in the hope that their heroes would soon have the opportunity to make it six.
While an animated Benitez spoke passionately to his players, Chelsea gathered in a huddle. They had won the toss and opted, understandably, for the opposite end to the Kop.
But at Anfield there was no escape. No escape from these incredible supporters and no escape from Reina. ‘The best team lost again,’ Mourinho dared argue, but this time nobody will be listening.
|posted by bobby @ 5:09 PM