It’s Liverpool Vs Chelsea, Again!

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Another European night at Anfield witnessed a traditional result coupled with its share of controversy. Liverpool burst into the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League as Rafael Benitez’s side claimed a 4-2 second-leg success over Arsenal in a dramatic encounter at Anfield. A fascinating fixture – the third of the recent trilogy – ended 5-3 on aggregate after last week’s first leg at The Emirates ended in a 1-1 draw. However, the man of the match on the night at Anfield was none other than Swedish referee Peter Frojdfeldt, whose harsh, unfair decision shattered Gunners’ hearts. Special accolades also to Liverpool’s stunt director with whose help, Liverpool players have perfected the art of play-acting to earn penalties.

Arsenal seemed to have achieved the impossible when they scored at Anfield when Abou Diaby handed The Gunners a dream start on 13 minutes firing past Pepe Reina; but Sami Hyypia’s thumping header drew the sides level. The free-scoring Fernando Torres then struck a classy second for the home side as The Reds appeared to be heading for the final four. However, Theo Walcott’s sensational solo run saw him evade four Liverpool players before assisting Emmanuel Adebayor, who tapped home to swing the tie back in Arsenal’s favour on away goals.

But disaster struck for Arsenal the very next minute as the drama continued to unfold. Ryan Babel headed into the Arsenal penalty box before falling in front of Kolo Toure. The referee Peter Frojdfeldt looked at it as a shove and handed Liverpool a penalty. Thus, the proverbial saying that “At Anfield, the referee is Liverpool’s 12th man” stood justified. Steven Gerrard, who is capable of setting the net on flames with his shots, converted the penalty kick and sent the noisy, rowdy Anfield crowd into ruptures. In the dying moments, when each of the Gunners was up front, Ryan Babel fled past a helpless Fabregas and wrapped it up with Liverpool’s fourth goal.

The Gunners started in sensational style, displaying blistering pace, strength in the tackle and sublime passing skills. Liverpool were stretched every way possible. Alexander Hleb, in a central role supporting Adebayor, was a constant danger and they were ahead in the 13th minute. Anfield was stunned into silence as Hleb threaded a ball down the right for Abou Diaby to surge into the box before crashing home a shot between Jose Reina and his near post.

For 30 minutes Arsenal had been impressive and Liverpool struggled against Arsene Wenger’s men. However, they equalised through the veteran defender Hyypia. The 34-year-old, with a newly-signed contract this week, produced a towering header from Gerrard’s corner that crashed into the net on the half-hour off Manuel Almunia’s post. Liverpool were buoyed by their leveller and Gerrard flashed a 30-yard shot wide. Then Arsenal suffered the blow of Mathieu Flamini being carried off after looking to have fallen awkwardly on an ankle. Gilberto came on after 40 minutes. By now Liverpool looked a changed side; steaming forward, their confidence restored.

It was the Spain striker, quiet up to that point, who forced Liverpool ahead. Crouch’s flick-on reached the Liverpool goal machine in the box, he turned Senderos with ease before firing his shot into the top corner. Wenger responded by replacing Diaby and Emmanuel Eboue with Robin Van Persie and Theo Walcott, knowing another Arsenal goal would put them through. Adebayor then missed when clean through before Babel came on for Crouch, who left the field with a standing ovation.

Liverpool switched back to their preferred system, with Gerrard working behind Torres while two holding players protected the midfield. But with Liverpool on the attack, Arsenal caught them cold on the break. Walcott embarked on an amazing run from his own half before pulling the ball back for Adebayor to drill in the equaliser after 83 minutes.

However, The Reds rallied. Straight from the restart, Babel surged into the box and, as the referee felt, was brought down by Kolo Toure. Swedish referee Peter Frojdfeldt pointed to the spot, and with the Kop in hushed agony, Gerrard drove the penalty high into the net. It’s time these qualified referees realize that such big European encounters cannot and should not be decided on such unsure, controversial decisions.

John Arne Riise came on for Torres, Liverpool desperate for the end now. Another Gunners goal would again see them through. But with Arsenal up in numbers in Liverpool’s box for a free-kick, the ball broke from the mass of players to be belted forward for Babel to outpace Fabregas to gloriously drive home the fourth. Alvaro Arbeloa came on for an exhausted Kuyt, and there was nothing left now from Wenger’s men as Anfield celebrated.

Not far from Liverpool, in London, goals from Michael Ballack and Frank Lampard gave Chelsea a nervy victory over Fenerbache at Stamford Bridge and edge them into the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League. Ballack headed the opener in the fourth minute to enable the Blues to level the tie, with Joe Cole then hitting the post four minutes later.

But Fenerbahce came back into the game and it was a nervous Stamford Bridge before Frank Lampard scored with three minutes to go from a Michael Essien cross. The Blues have now reached the semi-finals of the competition for the fourth time in five years and will face Liverpool, who beat Arsenal 4-2 at Anfield to progress. It will be the third time in four years the English pair have met in the last four of the competition but there is growing belief at Stamford Bridge that this could finally turn out to be Chelsea’s year.

But their victory was marred by an injury to goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini which plunged Chelsea’s goalkeeping crisis to a new low as first-choice stopper Petr Cech is out for at least two weeks after undergoing facial surgery. Chelsea’s desire to eradicate their one-goal disadvantage was evident from the start and they were given a massive lift in the fourth minute when Ballack put them level on aggregate.

A free-kick from Lampard found the Fenerbahce defence dreaming and the Germany captain glanced a fine header into the far corner of the net. It was the perfect start for Grant’s side but it almost got even better four minutes later when a superb run by Salomon Kalou on the left flank ended with Joe Cole hitting a post from the Ivorian’s cross.

Ballack then tested Volkan Demirel from the rebound with a low drive which the Fenerbahce goalkeeper did well to save at his near post. Chelsea were in the groove and every attack promised to punish the Turks further. Drogba skipped past Gokhan Gonul before trying his luck with a curling shot that dipped just too late to hit the target. But in the 25th minute, Chelsea’s goalkeeping crisis plunged to new depths when Cudicini signalled to the bench that he could not continue, and on came Hilario. Fenerbahce seized the opportunity to try and unnerve the Portuguese four minutes later when Semih Senturk sent a 20-yard drive just wide of his right-hand upright.

But the Turks should have equalised a minute later when a free-kick from Alex found Lugano in space on the edge of the six-yard box. Unfortunately he could not direct his header on target and a golden opportunity to restore their aggregate lead went begging.

The double scare demonstrated Fenerbahce’s ability to open up the Chelsea rearguard but moments later the English side squandered another chance to increase their lead on the night. Joe Cole and Drogba combined superbly on the right flank and when the ball dropped invitingly for the Ivorian striker, he forced Volkan into another diving save.

In the second period, Drogba was unlucky with a shot on the turn that fortunately for Volkan was hit straight at him. Drogba continued to cause the Turks problems and his sheer strength enabled him to carve out another chance in the 66th minute but again his low drive, from the edge of the penalty area, was just not accurate enough to beat Volkan. In the 76th minute, Drogba for once turned provider and set up Joe Cole but the England midfielder, clear of the Turkish defence, was beaten to the ball by Volkan.

The Fenerbahce stopper then had to dive to his left to prevent a Drogba free-kick from finding the corner of the net as Chelsea continued to search for a second goal. But with nine minutes left Chelsea had stand-in goalkeeper Hilario to thank for earning them a place in the semi-finals. He made two stunning saves within seconds to deny Gokhan and then Colin Kazim-Richards.

But Chelsea wrapped-up the tie with three minutes of normal time remaining when Michael Essien’s cross was turned home by Lampard from close range. However, some of the gloss was taken off their victory when Essien was shown a yellow card – a misdemeanour that rules him out of the first leg against Liverpool.

So, as of now, we have our first semi-finalists: Liverpool and Chelsea, again for the third time in four years. This assures a team from England in the finals again, for the fourth time in a row. We just have to sit back and watch who it will be this year, the sober Avram Grant or the tactical genius Rafael Benitez, who will have the last laugh.

Joydeep Roy

[Image courtesy: http://www.fcfootballblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/07/uefa-champions-league-balls.jpg]

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