Few people really expected anything else to happen to Liverpool last night than for them to exit from this season’s Champions League. A 3-1 defeat at home six days earlier meant they had a mountain to climb going into the game – they had to score three times against the side with the tightest defence in the Premier League this season.
Liverpool have done it before. In fact they did it twice on their way to bringing home their fifth European Cup; against Olympiakos at Anfield and of course Milan in Istanbul. But last night really did seem to be about playing for pride, because overturning that score seemed a tall order. Nobody was even 100% certain if Rafa Benítez would choose his strongest side. All we wanted was for our players to leave Stamford Bridge with some pride.
With the twentieth anniversary of Hillsborough the following day, memories related to the unnecessary loss of ninety-six lives were filling thoughts more than this game was. Not having to play on the anniversary itself was something Liverpool insisted on, and that is as much as they really can insist on. But playing so close to the anniversary means that a game becomes a temporary diversion from what’s really on our minds. That’s not to say it makes any difference to the performance of the professionals on the field; but it is difficult as a supporter to treat the game the same as any other, in many different ways.
Those professionals on the field were determined to show that Liverpool weren’t going out without a fight. The fans that travelled were, as always, determined to show that their support will always be as strong, regardless of what happens on or off the pitch. If anything, adversary strengthens that support, it adds more determination to fight for what we want – success on the field, justice off it.
In the end the game ended 4-4, 5-7 on aggregate, a massive contrast to the low-scoring battles these two sides have had in their previous European meetings. It’s easy to forget that this time four years ago the two sides had never met each other in any of the European competitions. And up until the end of normal time in last season’s semi-final second-leg, neither side had managed more than a single goal in any of those games.
Steven Gerrard had been a sub on Saturday as Liverpool beat Blackburn 4-0, injury keeping him out of the starting line-up. He trained before this match, but didn’t even make the bench. Liverpool did well without him – but how much better would they have done had he been available? No doubt that is a question that some observers will ask whilst suggesting that he could have played, even if only as a sub. But how long might he have been out for had he aggravated that injury after being risked?
Chelsea’s captain was missing too – suspended after being booked at Anfield – and the London side would no doubt be complaining long into the summer had their loss of four goals been enough to see them knocked out. But that would be unfair to Liverpool – and the four goals weren’t enough.
It would also have been unfair to blame it all on Petr Cech – but the Chelsea goalkeeper will not be happy with his performance last night. He looked shaky throughout, a shadow of the goalkeeper who helped Chelsea to their successes under Jose Mourinho. But at times there is too much of a rush to pin blame on a player for the side that conceded, or the officials, rather than just handing some praise to the team that got the goal.
And for the opening goal on 19 minutes, the one that set this game off on a path towards the likelihood of getting its own DVD in the Chelsea official shop, it’s easy to blame Cech. He had a box full of players in front of him as Fabio Aurelio waited by the right touchline to take a free kick, and Cech and everybody else expected Aurelio to float a ball into the box in the hope that a Red shirt would get to it first. Cech tried to keep an eye on what was happening in his box, making sure every one of those Red shirts had a blue one attached to it. What he didn’t keep an eye on was the gap he’d left between himself and the post.
If that was a mistake on Cech’s part, it still takes something special to score in such a situation. And Aurelio produced that something special, aiming perfectly, sending the ball just inside the post with his left foot. As he celebrated he pointed to the bench, as if to acknowledge a pre-arranged tip he’d had about Cech’s positioning at free-kicks, but even with a tip-off it was a perfectly-hit effort that is worthy of a place in any goal-of-the-season list.
Confidence plays a massive part in football, which is a big part of why managers enjoy – or not – their little mind games with each other. Liverpool hadn’t just scored; they’d scored in a way that noticeably knocked Chelsea’s confidence.
Branislav Ivanovic had been Chelsea’s hero in the first leg, scoring twice, and although his two goals would eventually prove to be what separated the two sides, he was the one who really gave Liverpool the belief they could actually come out of this tie victorious. Even European referees tend to ignore a lot of the pushing and pulling that goes on in the penalty area, but they rarely ignore the type of two-armed grip on a player Ivanovic had on Alonso and the Reds were awarded a penalty.
Steven Gerrard has been taking Liverpool’s pens for most of this season, but with him in the stands the responsibility fell to Alonso himself. Memories of Istanbul were flooding back; the image of Alonso, tongue out, about to try and steer a penalty past the massive frame of Dida and give Liverpool their unlikely equalising third goal. Of course Dida saved that pen – but Xabi blasted the rebound into the roof of the net and earned his permanent place in Liverpool folklore.
Xabi had scored a penalty for Spain in the recent international break, and was full of confidence when taking this one. He scored. It was 2-0 to Liverpool. It was 3-3 on aggregate, Chelsea ahead thanks to the away goals rule. One more goal from Liverpool would put them in front overall. And with only 28 minutes gone, one more goal seemed a certainty.
Chelsea were rattled, there’s no doubt at all about that. With the game being played on the eve of the anniversary it was difficult not to compare their situation with that of Liverpool in 1989 on the belated last day of the season. That was a night when Liverpool only had to avoid losing by two clear goals on their own ground to win the league. Liverpool players who talk about it now recall how difficult the game was in terms of how to approach it, how they just weren’t used to the idea of playing to avoid losing, as opposed to playing to win. Liverpool lost 2-0 that night, the second goal coming in the fourth hour of injury time. After what they’d all been through in the weeks before that fixture, nobody in their right mind faulted any of those players that night.
Chelsea’s temporary coach Guus Hiddink could see how rattled his side were, and decided it was time to make a change. Some managers would have made a defensive change, to try to avoid conceding that one more goal Liverpool needed. Hiddink brought on former Liverpool striker Nicolas Anelka, with nine minutes still on the clock for the first half. He knew holding on just wasn’t an option.
Chelsea survived until the end of the half, and then that confidence pendulum swung back their way.
Anelka crossed the ball across the ground towards Drogba, who battle with Skrtel to get a touch on it. Somehow he did, and although it was the slightest touch it was enough to totally deceive Reina. Chelsea had a goal back. Some will call it an own goal, Reina will be happy to see Drogba given the credit.
This goal knocked Liverpool’s confidence as noticeably as Aurelio’s opener had knocked Chelsea’s. It was good work from Drogba to get to the ball and unfortunate for Reina that he’d already started thinking about how he was going to gather the ball and send it forward to Torres for that third goal we needed. It looked like a blunder, and heads went down for a moment. But it made no difference at all to Liverpool’s task, if only they could remember that. They still needed to score three times in all to stay in, and if they did Chelsea would still need two goals in all to knock the Reds out.
Chelsea had also worked out by now that they could get some cheap free-kicks out of this referee. The Spanish official certainly didn’t have the approach of a Premier League official to any contact between players, and Chelsea used this fact to their advantage time and again by drawing a free-kick. By the end of the night they’d had twice the number of free-kicks Liverpool had been given. Within six minutes of scoring their opener, Drogba had seen a free-kick go about as close to the post as possible without actually hitting it. A minute later and he’d won another free-kick. The ball was lofted forward by Chelsea, and Drogba was backing into Jamie Carragher who was standing his ground. As the ball came near the two of them Carragher stepped back a little to get to the ball, which was the prompt for Drogba to hit the deck. Alex stepped up to take this one, and deserves a lot of praise for how well he took it. Reina could do nothing about it, and surely now Liverpool’s hopes had gone. It was 5-3 on aggregate, 2-2 on the night.
But Liverpool weren’t done, and kept fighting to get back into it. Having started the half needing one goal they now needed two, and went all out to get them. Unfortunately this left Liverpool exposed to the counter-attack, and on 76 minutes Lampard capitalised, putting the score to 6-3 on aggregate. With less than quarter of an hour left, and three goals needed once again, Rafa Benítez decided it was time to withdraw Torres and reduce any risk of injury to his prized striker.
But this is Liverpool of course, and Liverpool, particularly of late, seem determined to show as much fight on the field as those looking for justice off it have shown for the last twenty years. Liverpool take setbacks on the chin – and then fight back. Four minutes after going 6-3 down on aggregate Lucas got one back for the Reds. Then two minutes later Kuyt headed home another, it was 6-5 on aggregate and Liverpool had seven minutes plus stoppage time to score the one goal that would send them through.
But it wasn’t to be. With one minute left and Liverpool determined to get that single goal, Lampard got another one back for Chelsea.
In the end time had just run out on this particular fight, because had there been another 20 minutes on the clock there’s little doubt more goals would have come.
After going into the match looking for the chance to restore a bit of pride, Liverpool left the match knowing they’d done far more than that. All Liverpool’s hope for silverware this season now hinge on winning their own league games and hoping Manchester United draw a couple of theirs, which of course means the chances remain quite slim.
And although Ferguson doesn’t like us talking about him, it’s got to be mentioned that as he – no-doubt – celebrated last night he’ll have had that nagging doubt in the back of his mind about how maybe, just maybe, Liverpool’s long fight for league title number nineteen could finally be won this season.
With one point more on the board, plus one game in hand, Ferguson’s side can finish four points above the Reds at the end of the season, even if Liverpool win all their games. It’s not an easy task to win every game from now until the end of the season. But it’s not an easy task for either side. And one side out of the two is currently scoring goals for fun; the other is relying on a teenager to bail them out.
One side has all its main stars queuing up to sign new contracts. The other has its main star allegedly at odds with his manager, having missed out on a high-profile move abroad last summer.
Both sides see winning the league as important – but only one side would see missing out on it now as throwing it away.
Liverpool get a week off now, playing again on Tuesday night against an Arsenal side who have two cup games to play before then. Manchester have two games of their own before their next league match on Wednesday of next week.
This season for Liverpool may well end without any silverware, but there is a strong feeling that fans are witnessing the start of a new era, and events that will be looked back on as pivotal in the club’s future history. Only time will tell if that’s true of course.
In the meantime all thoughts now turn to an event that took place twenty years ago. Anfield will play host, as it has for the past twenty years, to a special service of remembrance for all those who died as a result of the 1989 disaster at the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield. Save for the inevitable minorities who see it as an opportunity to be exploited with the aim of hurting others, it’s a day when football rivalries are put to one side. It’s a day when decent fans of many other clubs go out of their way to show pass on their condolences and show their respect for what happened, in words if not in person – and that includes fans of Liverpool’s biggest rivals.
All are welcome at Anfield today. Ninety-six candles will be lit, ninety-six names of individuals who lost their lives needlessly. It’s a time to reflect. It’s a time of indescribable sadness. It’s a time when the fight for justice goes on hold for a short time; heads bowed as we pause to remember. But that service serves also as a means of recharging the batteries that power that ongoing fight to make sure the truth finally, once and for all, comes out about how so many people could lose their lives at a football match.
There has always been hope in our hearts – but never as much hope as we have now. The battles continue and the wars will be won.
Justice for the ninety-six.
Rest in Peace. You’ll Never Walk Alone.