Champions League semi-final second-leg at Stamford Bridge, Liverpool up against Chelsea, the fourth game in a row in this competition that the Reds have faced English opponents. And if they win, they’ll make it five in a row after Manchester United came through against Barcelona last night.
As tempting as it is to talk about Liverpool’s chances in Moscow against Manchester United, that talk should be saved for now. Tonight is going to be difficult, but far from impossible. But the focus has to be on tonight.
We have to score. 0-0 would see us go out, as of course would any defeat. And we’ve not scored at their place in years. So that’s it then. Enjoy the day out, better luck with the draw next year.
We can do this.
That is about the only stat in Chelsea’s favour. If stats really mattered, if stats decided games, we’d probably not need to turn up tonight and the club could book its hotel now.
Thankfully football isn’t decided on the contents of John Motson’s match notes, but it’s worth giving a quick nod to a couple. This is the fourth season in a row we’ve faced Chelsea in a major semi-final – and it was us who made it through each time. The only other time we faced them in any major semi-final was in 1965 – we won then too. 1965 was the last year we had a problem in a European Cup semi-final, going out to Inter Milan in controversial circumstances to say the least. Since then we’ve had seven semi-finals – and we’ve gone through to the final every single time. All three of Chelsea’s three European Cup semi-finals have ended in heartbreak.
Chelsea hadn’t ever scored a European goal at Anfield until John Arne Riise’s own goal in the 95th minute last week. Of the seven meetings between the two sides in this competition Liverpool have won the most times, twice to Chelsea’s once, with four games being drawn.
It’s not just semi-finals that have brought us joy against Chelsea either. In 1986 Liverpool had fallen as many as 13 points from the top of the table and were being written off in what was Kenny Dalglish’s first season as player manager. Kenny proved the critics wrong, turned it round, and on the 3rd of May scored the goal himself that gave Liverpool the title, the first half of a league and cup double in his first season in the role. Of the goal Kenny says: “I remember it vividly. Jim Beglin lobbed the ball in, Ronnie Whelan flicked it on and I just took it on my chest and volleyed it in. It got us the points but it was as well that David Speedie missed at the other end.”
The mention of a miss by David Speedie brings back memories of an Eidur Gudjohnsen miss in the 2005 semi at Anfield. That would have made it 1-1 and sent Chelsea through to Istanbul if it had gone in. But if Liverpool score first tonight a reply from Chelsea won’t be the end of the world.
1-1 would lead to extra-time, and then penalties, and as much as we hate going through penalty shoot-outs we’ve done quite well in them over recent years, winning with them in Istanbul and knocking Chelsea out with them last season.
So psychologically speaking Chelsea would feel a goal from us would leave them needing to score twice. And they’ve not managed two or more against the first team in the last nine meetings. Their December Carling Cup win was against largely a second-string side, Pepe Reina amongst those missing from the line-up.
This season’s league meetings were both draws. Torres got his first competitive goal in a 1-1 draw at Anfield, the Chelsea equaliser coming from one of the strangest penalty decisions ever given. At Stamford Bridge Liverpool had been on a poor run of form but managed to draw 0-0 against the expectation of most watching. And Torres was injured that day.
And that name Torres must be worrying the Chelsea defence. 30 goals in 43 games, 22 goals in 31 league games, five in Europe. That’s some first season in a new league.
But Torres isn’t even the top scorer for the Reds in Europe this season. Steven Gerrard has the edge on Torres with six goals, part of his haul of 21 this term.
Not that Gerrard is actually our top scorer in Europe this time round either. Dirk Kuyt has got seven, including the one that opened the scoring in this tie.
So we can score. It doesn’t matter we haven’t scored at Stamford Bridge before under Rafa. Nobody expected us to score at the San Siro, but we did, Fernando Torres getting the only goal of the second leg. This followed the two in the first leg courtesy of Gerrard and Kuyt. And we’ve also got the ability to score however many goals we need. Arsenal found this out at Anfield in the last round, on their way through with five minutes left thanks to away goals, we went and scored twice, breaking their hearts.
A goal is vital, but stopping them at the other end is important too. With Sami Hyypia, Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel to choose from at centre-back the manager knows he has a defence he can rely on. Carragher may well be moved to right-back, then Rafa can choose between John Arne Riise and Alvaro Arbeloa at left-back. But any defence with Hyypia, Skrtel and Carragher in it is tough to break through.
Rafa Benítez has used the media to warn the referee about the antics of Didier Drogba. Not him having a tantrum over not being allowed to take the penalty on Saturday, or him pushing his own player as part of that sulk. But what seems to be an inability to stay upright if he finds himself within a foot of an opposition player.
The defence is strong. The attack is strong, with Babel improving as the season has gone on, especially in this formation where he joins Kuyt and Gerrard in supporting Torres. And in between the defence and attack we’ve got two of the best midfielders in the world at what they do. Mascherano can break attacks up he has no right to. Alonso on his day can provide real chances with his passing abilities.
Walking onto the pitch thinking we’ve won it would be a mistake, but Chelsea are worried.
We’ve not got the 12th man, because we’re not in front of the Kop. But with all due respect to those who can’t make it tonight, we’ve got the Kop’s gob. The 3000 members of the Kop who are allowed to go will be bouncing and singing and cheering and waving their own flags, not ones provided to them.
On their own website they’ve admitted that “30,000 new flags will be placed in the stands for next Wednesday night.” Liverpool’s fans carry scarves and flags that were bought from official and unofficial outlets, and often if those items could speak they’d have great stories to tell. But a lot of Liverpool’s banners and flags are home-made, certainly unique, and not for sale.
Chelsea are trying: “There will also be the new giant flags you may have noticed flying high in recent weeks”.
They’ve even had to politely request their fans get into the ground early to try and build themselves up a bit: “Supporters can play their part by adding to the colour and by filling the stadium early to build the atmosphere prior to the whistle.”
And as an incentive, they’ll make sure that few people miss out on the freebies: “This season, one free flag has been placed at every other seat but against Liverpool, there will be a flag awaiting at each seat in the regular parts of the stadium.” What about those in the irregular parts?
Wesley Barton is the brains behind this plastic fan idea: “With it being the last Champions League game of the season at home, but hopefully not our last Champions League game,” he said, “we want to have a fantastic atmosphere.” He’s a supervisor, supervises stadium tours, and has thought this all through: “It creates a bit of atmosphere seeing that sea of blue when the players come out and it is great for TV as well.”
If I’d not seen these quotes myself on the official Chelsea website I’d have assumed somebody was on a wind-up, or sending me a script from a new sit-com: “Anything to try to inspire the players is worth it. We have heard the players do like it and anything to give them that extra one per cent is valuable.”
It gets funnier: “We now have a few giant flags waved in front of the West Stand. We trialled them for a couple of Premier League games to use them for this game. It is some of the tour guides that actually wave them.” They actually pay people to wave flags for them!
Barton’s hoping for a medal for this idea: “The first game we placed them at the seats was when we hosted Barcelona in the group stage. We beat them 1-0 and Drogba scored that great goal. We did every seat then as well. Most of the fans take them home. I think most people have about ten flags in their bedroom, but we try to encourage them to bring them back as well.”
Is Roman starting to get a bit short of cash though? “We have seen a few brought back for Premier League games and it would be great if people could keep bringing them back and build on the atmosphere.”
This is the semi-final of a prestigious, high-profile, arguably greatest competition in the world and Chelsea have to ask their fans politely if they can arrive early, drop hints at them to try and boost the atmosphere and give them free flags and pay people to wave other flags. And for good measure, as part of some advice to Reds supporters, Chelsea asked LFC to pass this message on to fans: “Excessively large flags or banners will not be permitted.”
Is the fake passion v genuine passion off the field in the stands going to be reflected on the pitch from the players? If it is, we’re through.
Because once those players kick that first ball the only stat that will count is the one on the scoreboard, and with the passion the likes of Carragher and Gerrard are capable of showing, to the soundtrack of a bouncing travelling Kop, that stat will be in our favour by the end of the night.