Riise's last-gasp howler throws Chelsea an unexpected lifeline
Liverpool 1 Chelsea 1
Avram Grant may not yet have proved he is a good manager but last night reinforced something about him we already knew: he is a very lucky manager. There were 94 min, 2 sec played when this Champions League semi-final tie was turned on its head by John Arne Riise's own goal. It was one more goal more than Chelsea deserved.
For once that famous Anfield roar was quiet, not so much silenced as gagging on disbelief. Liverpool's only crime was that in their periods of dominance, particularly at the start of the second half, they did not build on the lead that Dirk Kuyt gave them two minutes before half-time. Riise's own goal was at the same end where Luis Garcia scored that famous ghost goal against Chelsea in 2005. No ghosts this time, but a personal horror show for Riise himself.
The story of Rafael Benitez's Liverpool team in Europe over the last four seasons has been laced with last-minute goals and improbable comebacks; some might even call it luck. Last night they discovered that fate can work both ways. Now Liverpool must go next Wednesday to Stamford Bridge, where they have never scored a goal under Benitez and break the habit. You can only believe that Chelsea, even after Saturday's Premier League title decider against Manchester United, cannot play as badly as this again.
As Liverpool's players jogged round the pitch in their post-match warm-down, Jamie Carragher was miming to Steven Gerrard how Riise came to head Salomon Kalou's cross past Pepe Reina. The Liverpool captain looked disinclined to believe what he had seen. If that goal comes to decide this semi-final, thousands of men of a certain age on Merseyside may require therapy for years. Which is nothing compared to the kind of help poor old Riise, on as a substitute last night, might need to get over the event.
If Chelsea had not scored the equaliser there would have been a few people demanding to know why Grant had finished the game with Florent Malouda in centre midfield and Nicolas Anelka on the right wing. Those details were lost in the incredulity at Chelsea's late goal but, for those 94 minutes, nobody was advancing the theory that Grant had cracked the puzzle of beating Benitez's Liverpool in the Champions League that had eluded Jose Mourinho for three years.
As they celebrated in front of their own fans, the gestures of Didier Drogba seemed to be encouraging the Chelsea faithful to keep the faith. It was certainly stretched very thin last night. For long periods they were way off the pace. Drogba and Michael Ballack did not look fit; Malouda and Ashley Cole did not look fit for purpose. By the time Gerrard and Fernando Torres went close in the late stages, defeat by a single goal looked like a decent result for Chelsea in the circumstances.
Watching from his yacht in the Mediterranean, Roman Abramovich will have recognised that this result was not the outcome of a well-executed game plan, rather outrageous good fortune. If there is a defence for Chelsea it is that they did not give up, no matter how unpromising the circumstances looked. Even Drogba, whose touch was reminiscent of his nervous skittish self when he joined in 2004, kept plugging away long after it looked like a futile exercise for Chelsea.
Drogba had half a shout for a penalty when he and Carragher chased a ball into the Liverpool area on 29 minutes but in the chaos of the collision it seemed the defender made the tackle outside the area at the very least. Chelsea's best players were Petr Cech, John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho, who held them together at times in the centre of defence, but they had to ride their luck in moments when Liverpool broke through.
It was not Torres' finest 90 minutes for Liverpool this season. He had two chances to score, including one in the final minutes, that this young assassin would normally bury. On 31 minutes he was played in immaculately by Gerrard and then, behind the Chelsea defence, took two touches instead of one to control the ball. When he hit his shot it was straight at Cech.
For an easy comparison in the varying fortunes of the two sides you did not need to look much further than their wide players. Malouda and Joe Cole were scarcely in the game yet the unpolished Ryan Babel and Kuyt, the least natural winger on the pitch, saw plenty of the ball. Kuyt embarrassed Ashley Cole down the right wing more than once and, two minutes before the break, scored the goal that Anfield was praying for.
The move began with a quick free-kick by Alonso that set Kuyt off down the right. His cross was cleared by a diving header from Terry which fell to Frank Lampard on the edge of the box. There, however, the England man lingered too long on the ball and so Chelsea's fate unfolded.
Kuyt won the ball from Lampard and possession fell to Javier Mascherano while the Dutchman scampered into the area. Mascherano sliced the ball into the box where Kuyt, holding off Claude Makelele, tucked his volley through Cech's legs. It was a goal that showed up all Chelsea's failings at once – frailty in midfield, weakness down their left flank and a tendency to come off second best in tackles.
In the first 20 minutes of the second half Liverpool could have put this game to bed, but after that Chelsea drifted back into the match. On 65 minutes Drogba cut the ball back to Lampard who, instead of hitting it first time, tried to take the ball on and succeeded only in running it into touch. He slapped his forehead in frustration, Homer Simpson-style, a gesture that might have been best suited to Grant on the touchline for whom events were looking increasingly desperate.
Cech stopped a thunderous shot from Gerrard and another effort from Torres. Then, in the closing stages, it fell apart for Liverpool. Chelsea pushed forward in haphazard style, and with the four minutes of extra time seemingly elapsed, Kalou crossed low from the left and Riise, conscious of Anelka behind him, dived forward and headed the ball past Reina from close range. The noise died in the throats of the Kop. Even Chelsea did not seem able to believe their luck.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Arbeloa, Carragher, Skrtel, Aurelio (Riise, 61); Mascherano, Alonso; Kuyt, Gerrard, Babel (Benayoun, 76); Torres. Substitutes not used: Itandje (gk), Hyypia, Crouch, Pennant, Lucas.
Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Cech; Ferreira, Carvalho, Terry, A Cole; Makelele; J Cole (Kalou, 62), Ballack (Anelka, 86), Lampard, Malouda; Drogba. Substitutes not used: Hilario (gk), Shevchenko, Mikel, Alex, Belletti.
Referee: K Plautz (Austria).