The Carling Cup or the Snarling Cup? Even the mild-mannered Peter Crouch lost his temper last night to become the third player in English football's angriest competition to be dismissed in the space of two days before Rafael Benitez followed up with a broadside at the referee Martin Atkinson.
It may be the trophy of last resort for the Premier League's big four, but everyone seems to want to win the Carling Cup so much that tempers are fraying. Chelsea's passage into the semi-finals to play Everton was memorable for yet another red card: Crouch's uncharacteristic lunge at John Obi Mikel earned the England striker a straight red while Benitez accused referee Atkinson of failing to protect his player.
Crouch was incensed at what he saw as two attempts by Mikel to stud him from the knee down in the moments leading up to his ill-advised two-footed lunge at the Nigerian. Despite minimal contact on Mikel, there was little option for referee Atkinson other than to dismiss Crouch – just as Didier Zokora and Denilson found themselves red-carded on Tuesday night for raising their studs.
The incident over-shadowed the goals from Frank Lampard and Andrei Shevchenko that gave Chelsea their place in the semi-final especially when Benitez accused the referee of inconsistency. He might have a point when you consider that Steed Malbranque's brutal challenge on Vedran Corluka in Tottenham's win over Manchester City went unpunished, but even Benitez had to concede that Crouch's challenge itself was "maybe" a red card.
"I have watched the replay twice and Mikel was trying to kick Crouch," Benitez said. "If the referee had blown his whistle he would have avoided the sending off. He was kicked twice and that was the reason Crouch lost his head. I have seen more dangerous tackles. Sometimes they are yellow cards, sometimes they are nothing. He [Atkinson] needed to stop it before."
Crouch was furious at what he saw as play-acting from Mikel who, despite playing dead by the touchline, was back on his feet a few minutes later. By then the game was well out of Liverpool's reach. Avram Grant may have been appointed to win the Champions League, but for now it looks like he is happy to settle for Carling Cup.
The Israeli made seven changes from the team that lost to Arsenal on Sunday, but this was still virtually the strongest team that he could field in the circumstances. Benitez picked the likes of Jamie Carragher and Xabi Alonso but let his imagination run wild with the rest of the formation. He chose a 4-3-3 system that became 4-5-1 for most of the game and left Crouch isolated and frustrated.
With Andriy Voronin on the right wing and Ryan Babel on the left, Liverpool created too little. The Brazilian Lucas Leiva exerted only a sporadic influence from the space behind Crouch. The pick of the half was a flick from Crouch that played in Leiva who missed; and an identical chance for Lampard at the other end that he could not lift over Liverpool goalkeeper Charles Itandje.
It was a match that cried out for a bit of invention and when Joe Cole replaced Scott Sinclair on 56 minutes the Chelsea manager had gambled on virtually his strongest formation.
Before then Itandje had made a brilliant one-handed save from Michael Essien's shot. At the other end a mistake from Ricardo Carvalho, back for the first time since 11 November, gave Crouch a half-chance to lob Petr Cech which he could not lift over the Chelsea goalkeeper. Then came a goal that proved to Grant he has not used up all his luck just getting the Chelsea job.
Shortly before the hour Shevchenko knocked down a ball on the edge of the area into the stride of Lampard who got his shot away just as the ubiquitous Carragher lunged across to block. The Liverpool captain was having another one of his giant games, but he will probably wish he had not got a heel to this shot. It bounced down against the turf and looped over Itandje to give Chelsea the lead.
Crouch's sending off followed the goal, the fourth of his career after red cards playing for Queens Park Rangers, Norwich City and Southampton. A Chelsea fan as a child, he was a ball boy at Stamford Bridge in his youth and he has certainly had better nights at the stadium than this. "I think he didn't need to do it," Grant said. Chelsea are hardly in a position to moralise after the brawl in last season's Carling Cup final saw Mikel sent off.
Grant had asked for protection from referees for his players and he got it last night. John Terry had the last word on the challenge that left him with three broken bones in his foot on Sunday. In his programme notes, the Chelsea captain accused Emmanuel Eboue of having "left his studs in" in the crucial challenge that did the damage.
Michael Ballack was given a run-out as a substitute, his first game in eight months out with an ankle injury, and Shevchenko added the second in injury-time. By then, the Carling Cup was starting to look like more trouble than it was worth for Liverpool.
Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Cech; Belletti, Ben Haim, Carvalho, Bridge; Mikel (Ballack, 68); Kalou, Essien, Lampard, Sinclair (Cole, 57); Shevchenko (Sidwell, 90). Substitutes not used: Cudicini (gk), Ferreira
Liverpool (4-4-1-1): Itandje; Arbeloa, Hobbs, Carragher, Aurelio; Voronin, Alonso (El Zhar, 60), Sissoko, Babel (Benayoun, 73); Leiva; Crouch. Substitutes not used: Martin (gk), Hyypia, Riise
Referee: M Atkinson (Yorkshire)