Anfield fell silent, save for a euphoric pocket of travelling supporters in the Anfield Road End. All around were blank faces or heads obscured by hands, jackets, hoods and just about any other object that could be found to mask the pain. Rafa Benitez made a desperate, and futile, attempt to get someone’s attention on the far side. In front of the delirious Chelsea fans, Didier Drogba lapped up the applause, generously insisting on a share for Florent Malouda, before being mobbed by the rest of Chelsea’s players.
It is not often you are able to hold your hands up and say “well done” as a rival side rips apart your own, but Chelsea’s third goal last night was one of those moments. Guus Hiddink’s side were already a level above Benitez’s on the night, and had the tie in the palm of their hands with the two away goals Branislav Ivanovic had headed past Pepe Reina, extinguishing the memories of Fernando Torres’ wonderfully-worked opener, but this was just rubbing it in. Liverpool were opened up like a knee beneath Richard Steadman’s knife.
Michael Ballack started it, a pass of exquisite weight and accuracy in behind Alvaro Arbeloa for the willing Malouda to race onto. In the middle, Drogba sensed a chance and maneuvered himself ahead of the off-colour Fabio Aurelio. Malouda’s ball was whipped and deadly, Drogba’s finish on the slide was clinical. Reina looked aghast, Steven Gerrard looked to the heavens as he trudged towards the centre circle for the restart, most on the Kop wore the same resigned look. One that screamed “Game Over”
It isn’t of course, Liverpool fans above all else should know that writing their side off is something best left to the naïve. Hiddink refused to do it. John Terry — who will miss the second leg after picking up a soft yellow card for a “barge” on Reina — refused to do it. Even Jamie Redknapp refused to do it. Sort of. But in reality the defeat, and moreover the manner of it, will surely spell the end of the European campaign for Liverpool, and place the onus firmly on their pursuit of a jaded-looking Manchester United in the Premier League. It comes to something when even a 2-0 win at Stamford Bridge — something no side has managed in six years — would not be enough. Benitez is an optimist, but he is also a realist.
Chelsea were inspired after weathering the predictable early storm at Anfield. Within a minute of Torres’ opener, Drogba should have levelled things up, and he would miss another great chance before the break as Carragher found the Ivorian impossible to handle, with little assistance from Aurelio and Martin Skrtel, who had off-nights of their own. Even Reina was caught out positionally for Ivanovic’s equaliser, as the Serb exposed the shortcomings of a zone-marking policy by drifting between Xabi Alonso’s and Skrtel’s to meet Frank Lampard’s corner. A goal-line clearance from Carragher to deny Drogba merely delayed the inevitable, although the fact that it was Ivanovic again who supplied the finish was incredible, another virtually unchallenged header which left Reina with no chance.
It is not often that Liverpool look as ragged as they did last night. Benitez is, rightly, lauded across the continent as a master tactician. Perhaps not the most free-flowing of coaches (although the massacre of Real Madrid last month had prompted some rather fanciful claims to the contrary), but certainly the most compact. His sides retained shape no matter what the situation, with width always evident and the defensive screen rarely missing. But last night, with Lucas Leiva failing miserably to replace Javier Mascherano, and Steven Gerrard struggling to free himself of the vice-like grip of Michael Essien, Liverpool found themselves second best in every area. Ballack, so often labelled as an indicator of Chelsea complacency, strutted around the middle of the park like he owned it. Assisted by Lampard & Essien, he did.
Up front Drogba was in one of his “take the world on” moods, and Liverpool simply couldn’t contain him. And in Malouda and Kalou, he had surprisingly incisive allies. A contrast to the increasingly frustrated Torres, who was left as isolated as a forward can be in a home European tie, receiving little or no support from either Riera (or Benayoun, or Babel) on the left, or Kuyt- who had a good first half but found himself pegged back by the sensible bursts of Ashley Cole and the quality of Malouda & Drogba’s link up.
Chelsea’s last performance at Anfield, a meek 2-0 surrender in February, was bad enough to convince Roman Abramovich that Guus Hiddink was needed, and fast. I wonder if this latest visit to Merseyside will convince the money-man that the Dutchman is needed beyond this summer? If you ask me, it should do.