There will be talk this week, in the build-up to Chelsea’s visit to Liverpool on Saturday evening, about whether the rivalry between the clubs is as strong as it used to be.
Since Jose Mourinho and Rafael Benitez led teams who faced each other multiple times in massive games, not just in the Premier League but in cup competitions both domestic and European, too, things have died down a bit. There’s still a rivalry, but does it burn with the same intensity? There have been iconic moments since then – Steven Gerrard’s infamous slip in 2014 – but nothing that set two sets of fans against each other in quite the same was as it used to.
2005 was the pinnacle of it all: Chelsea won the League Cup at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff as Mourinho ‘shushed’ the Liverpool crowd, and then Luis Garcia’s ghost goal heightened the tension.
Revenge was in the air in 2009, but Guus Hiddink’s Chelsea were hardly as fiery as Mourinho’s version. And yet, you could hardly say that 2009 was an uneventful year for Chelsea in the Champions League.
Marked by their semi-final second leg rather than any other moment, it’s sad that a true thriller in the quarter-final isn’t what’s remembered.
The pain Chelsea felt when Andres Iniesta’s last minute strike took Barcelona to the final was traumatic. And when Barcelona went on to beat Manchester United to see Pep Guardiola’s side start to take their place in footballing history, it’s only Blues fans who remember with bitterness the four penalty claims that Tom Henning Ovrebo waved away before the Spanish side struck heartbreakingly late.
It wasn’t just the pain of defeat or the feelings of injustice that would sting, either. Chelsea were also denied a chance to gain revenge over Manchester United for the Moscow final the previous season, when they were the length of John Terry’s stud away from winning the trophy.
And yet, if one of the best Champions League matches of all time is to be overshadowed by something else, it’s comforting that such a memorable cocktail of outrage and drama should do it. But it’s sad we remember the drama and not the football.
What made the football special in the quarter-final was dramatic, too. Chelsea went into the second leg in a commanding position, not just because they’d beaten Liverpool at Anfield, but because they’d scored three away goals as well. A 3-1 defeat in the first leg meant that Rafael Benitez’s side were on the rack, and they were without their injured skipper Steven Gerrard to make matters worse. When it came to inspirational European nights for Liverpool in the Noughties, the absence Steven Gerrard is rarely a factor.
But within just 28 minutes, Liverpool were level on aggregate, if not on away goals. They had raced into a two goal lead that they’d hold at the half-time break.
Because of that, the night was always on edge. One more goal for Liverpool wasn’t just going to put them ahead in the tie, but also wipe out Chelsea’s away goal advantage if they did manage to pull it back level once again. And maybe that’s Hiddink’s side came out of the blocks in the second half flying: they were level before the 60th minute, with goals from Didier Drogba and Alex, before Frank Lampard looked to have sealed their progression with a goal 15 minutes from time.
3-2 on the night made it 6-3 on aggregate, and left Liverpool needing three goals in a quarter of an hour. But the night had already been electrified, and the Reds had been allowed to believe at half-time. They rallied again and scored two goals in a minute as Lucas Leiva and Dirk Kuyt put them ahead on the night, and back to 6-5 on aggregate. We were back to the half-time situation again, but this time with just minutes to go: if Liverpool could beat the clock and find a goal, they would be through to another European semi-final. If not, then it would be Chelsea.
The dynamic of the game more than the actual football is the most memorable part. Not only did the momentum swing every way imaginable over the course of the 90 minutes, but after so many goals, the floodgates were opened and it was no surprise that there would be more. That’s what put the game so on-edge, and as Liverpool attacked relentlessly to try and get that final goal to take them through in unlikely fashion, Chelsea broke up the other end and sealed progression with a last minute strike from Frank Lampard.
7-5 on aggregate doesn’t do it justice, for the last ten minutes, it didn’t feel like Chelsea were that far ahead.
It was perhaps one of the most entertaining Champions League games of all-time, and although it may have been overshadowed quickly by what happened to Chelsea in the next round, it plays a massive part in one of the biggest rivalries of the Premier League era of which the latest installment will take place this weekend.
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