By Anthony Jones at talklfc
Half time in the all English European Cup semi-final. The scoreline sits at 0-0. Trying to work out who has the advantage could consume all of the six days between now and the return leg. If it's anything like the first leg it's going to be a thoroughly tense yet exciting game. Yet again Liverpool have proved difficult to break down on their European travels, so different to their form in the Premiership. It was hard work at times, but overall the draw was deserved and maybe a little disappointment at failing to get the away goals.
Liverpool lined up unsurprisingly with Alonso, Garcia, Riise and Biscan all recalled to the side. The back four was the ever familiar quartet of Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia and Traore. With Dudek in goal, Baros at the cutting edge and Gerrard filling the gap between midfield and attack. It was as close to a full strength side as Benitez has been able to field this season.
The opening pattern was quite clear, Chelsea happy to hold onto the ball in their own half, Liverpool pleased to give them the space there. As soon as Chelsea moved forward though Liverpool snapped into the tackles with Biscan and Alonso forming an effective shield. Gerrard infront of them was working hard across the park without ever being his typical rampaging self. Both sides seemed confident in possession and this was an interesting mix of European and Premiership football. Played at pace but with the thoughts of the two intelligent managers running through their respective sides.
Chelsea's play tended to be central when they attacked. With Robben only fit for the bench and Duff completely ruled out, their wide players consisted of Cole and Gudjohnson, both more comfortable cutting in than staying wide. Neither side was capable to find much space in the final third, Gerrard, Garcia and Baros struggling to hold the play up for long enough, Cole, Drogba and Gudjohnsen looking to play intricate football without finding the killer pass.
Liverpool were opened up for a moment, some lovely play involving Drogba and Lampard created the space for Cole on the right. After skipping inside Traore his left foot shot lacked power, with players centrally he may have looked to cross. Liverpool were continuing to get into the final third but were struggling to do much when they arrived there.
Didier Drogba was giving Hyypia and Carragher a tough time with the high ball. Chelsea had shown against Bayern that they were not afraid to use the direct route and the same applied here. On more than one occassion he out muscled his marker, first Carragher then Hyypia. Hyypia covered for his partner on one occassion doing a good job of shielding the ball back to Dudek, much to the annoyance of the striker. On the second occasion Liverpool rode their luck. Having turned his marker he shot across goal with his left foot. The shot lacked both pace and accuracy but almost fell fortuitously to Gudjohnsen but to the Red's relief it was too far ahead.
At the other end, Riise and Baros both found space to deliver dangerous crosses, but Liverpool's mind appeared firmly focused on keeping their shape as nobody gambled on a run into the box. Play quickly moved down the other end and Cole was through but for a fantastic last ditch tackle from Traore. It was either the ball or an early bath, Traore stayed on. Then suddenly the first real chance arrived. The ball was switched from right to left by Liverpool, with Riise cutting into the box. His first touch was expertly executed, flicking the ball into his path. His second took him past one defender, his next past another. Faced by the goal, he swung his right foot but lacked sufficient conviction - there was enough on the ball to force a save from Cech, but it was merely regulation.
Baros was looking devoid of confidence for Liverpool as he struggled to make an impact. This was the player who has scored two goals in 19 games since Christmas rather than the player who scored 10 goals before the festive period. Chelsea's best chance then arrived at the other end. Gallas beat Finnan on the wing too easily and delivered a right footed cross to the far post. Cole headed down and Lampard, as he has done all season arrived at the right moment to strike the ball. Yet much to his horror his effort flew off his foot and cleared the cross bar from some distance. From six yards he would have expected to have scored - everyone in the crowd did.
Chelsea were winning numerous corners - an area of play where they have benefited greatly this season against Liverpool. Yet they were struggling to make them count - Hyypia and Carra standing strong. Chelsea were upping the pace of the game, with Liverpool increasingly forced to scramble in defence. For all the pressure, Chelsea were not finding it easy to break down the massed ranks.
Liverpool were however starting to get annoyed with the match official. An increasing number of free kicks were coming to Chelsea with not all of them being for any obvious reason. Drogba headed over from a corner whilst Biscan had a shot blocked after a good run from midfield. Liverpool were then seemingly robbed of a penalty, not for the first time this season. Gerrard whipped a free kick high into the box, Carragher went down with Carvalho clearly putting his arm across the Liverpool centre half. It was the Chelsea player though who got the decision, as Carragher caught Carvalho on his way down. It wasn't as blatant as some of the penalties Liverpool haven't been awarded against Chelsea this season, but it should have been. Garcia then surged into the box after beating Carvalho but Johnson made a desperation tackle and won the ball.
The best chance of the game then arrived to Liverpool. Gerrard produced a cross of the highest quality, curling in behind the Chelsea back four but away from Cech. Baros who had struggled to make an impact rose majestically and headed the ball towards the top corner of the goal. It seemed that Liverpool had the lead and they would have done if they had been facing any other keeper. However this season Cech has been a man possessed. Flying to his right he reached out left handed and some how managed to tip the ball around the post.
It would prove to be the closest either team would come to a goal and was all but the last chance either side created. Chelsea would scramble their way through the Liverpool defence and nearly managed to create something, but every time a Liverpool player did enough to force the shot wide.
The second half again saw Chelsea looking to apply pressure with them throwing everything they had at the Red's. Arjen Robben was brought on after 60 minutes, a decision that everyone expected. The Dutch winger has been so explosive this season and will undoubtedly be a threat in the second leg, but in this game he struggled to make an impact. Traore matched him stride for stride. The Malian international remains a frustrating player, uncomfortable on the ball but capable of brilliant last ditch defending.
As the second half wore on, Igor Biscan started to appear as the dominant force in midfield. Winning the ball for his side and also carrying the team forward when he could. With Gerrard quiet but working hard to keep the teams shape and Alonso efficiently moving the ball Liverpool looked in ever improving shape. Liverpool would continue to be frustrated by some inconsistent refereeing decisions, though both sides benefited from some incorrect off-side calls that favoured the defence rather than attack.
The most significant moment of the second half arrived late in the game. Both Makelele and Biscan had previously committed fouls when chasing back with their team on the rack. It was the kind of foul Baresi made an art form as the team back tracking were given time to reorganise following a shirt pull. Neither player had been booked for their efforts. However when Gudjohnson broke in midfield, Alonso chased after him. There was minimal contact but clearly enough in Gudjohnsen's mind to go down, it would result in a costly booking for Alonso who will miss the second leg. Alonso has been instrumental for Liverpool since returning from injury, he will be sorely missed.
And so to the second leg. Without Alonso Benitez's tactical ability will be well tested. However he has the benefit of the improving fitness of Cisse whilst Kewell also made a late appearance. For a chance, Benitez will have options - how well he uses it will almost certainly decide the outcome of the tie. Half time - all to play for.