James Lawton: Resolute Liverpool find their strength sapped by late twist of fortune
Published 23/04/2008 | 09:19
There is always, it seemed again last night, one certainty about schizophrenic, misdirected, and in some ways, let's face it, betrayed Liverpool and their quirky, indecipherable but, at least at the top of the European game, tactically brilliant manager, Rafael Benitez. It was that you just cannot shake them off when the stakes are at their highest. You can outplay them as coruscatingly as you like, as Arsenal did last week, but you cannot dispose of them.
You cannot subdue the belief that they will find a way to win, whatever the opposition. This remains true despite the bizarre late blow to their chances of a third European Cup final in four years, which would come against the background of often inept performance in the Premier League. For most of the night they said this with a conviction that once again frustrated their domestic superiors Chelsea – right until the last seconds.
Yet tell none of this to Chelsea's manager, Avram Grant, who came back from the interred last night in an extraordinary climax which saw Chelsea restore all of their chances of providing a triumphant return to Moscow for their owner, Roman Abramovich, when they equalised in the last minute of added time.
Salomon Kalou's cross seemed like nothing more than a forlorn gesture until John Arne Riise headed into the roof of his own net. Liverpool could only curse their way into the night. They had earned the majority of chances with a performance that had reflected so many of their returning strengths in the world's top club competition.
A classic example of this came when Benitez's long-running disaffection, and breakdown in communication, with Xabi Alonso, the man the manager declared at the start of his reign would be the heart and the vision of a new Liverpool, gave way to a perfect marriage of hope and execution.
The fact that Liverpool's most coherent attacking ideas in the first half – until Steven Gerrard fed a killer ball to Fernando Torres, who for once was not in matador mode – came from Alonso reminded us of one of the ironies of Benitez's superb record in the Champions League.
Some of it has come in the face of bewildering selection. When Liverpool disposed of Chelsea last season, for example, Benitez preferred Bolo Zenden, a once waspish but surely time-expired wide player, to the surgically brilliant passer from the Basque country.
Last night Alonso gave Chelsea their first caution after a surging start in which Michael Ballack, particularly, suggested the possibilities of the sweetest of nights for the embattled Grant.
Chelsea were not coruscating, not remotely in the fashion of Arsenal, but they did start with a certain promise and the returned presence of Didier Drogba inevitably gave them new heart and substance. But first Alonso and then Gerrard, after a largely irrelevant first 20 minutes, threw Chelsea back. Alonso's beautifully flighted pass gave Dirk Kuyt the chance to open the scoring but the Dutchman, not for the first time in his dogged pursuit of success at the highest level, displayed a leaden touch.
However, if Kuyt is not always luminous in his skill, he is as indefatigable as they come in modern football, and when Alonso again opened up the Chelsea cover with a quickly taken and accurately placed free-kick, Kuyt, on the working principle of all stalwarts that if you don't succeed at first you must try again, eventually scored after failures by Frank Lampard and Claude Makelele to clear the pressure. It was Kuyt's seventh goal of the campaign and, for another irony, vindication of Benitez's faith in a player who is so often easier to admire than celebrate.
You could say that of much of Liverpool's performance last night. In the second half Chelsea did begin to fulfil some of the promise of their opening. Ballack, particularly, was keen to get on the ball and play and it took all the defensive resources of Jamie Carragher to keep out Lampard after a flowing Chelsea move.
For Grant this must have been arguably the most agonising phase of his currently anguished reign. Here was an effort at the finish that was decidedly more intelligent than those produced by Jose Mourinho's team while facing similar circumstances against Liverpool in two Champions League semi-finals and one in the FA Cup. Then, invariably, Chelsea reverted to long balls into the heart of Liverpool's defence. They might as well have been passing plates of scouse to the ultimate Merseysider, Carragher. He devoured them.
Now Chelsea were threading passes and touching moments of fluency. It meant that Liverpool needed the help of a questionable decision against John Terry in the dying minutes when Pepe Reina's goal faced rare danger.
Yet the Liverpool response was resolute and, yet again, exemplified by Kuyt when he won the ball as Chelsea attempted to sweep out of defence and fed Gerrard, who brought a fine save from Petr Cech.
But then the Riise catastrophe potentially wiped it all away. Nightmare overcame a classic night in the story of Liverpool's extraordinary journey in Europe. However, Chelsea, of course, cannot assume too much from their reprieve. As we were saying, Liverpool have a tendency not to go away when the pressure is at its highest.