It was a match to make grudges respectable. Although Chelsea are out to avenge the defeat to Liverpool in the Champions League semi-final two years ago, they were measured throughout a victory that makes them favourites to take their place in Athens on May 23. This was not a stirring night but there should be appreciation for a side who played cunningly on the break in the first half and might have settled the entire tie then.
Liverpool could leave in reasonable heart because Chelsea neglected to pound home the advantage. That is an intermittent fault in Jose Mourinho's team, who had also failed to kill off Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup and so subjected themselves to extra-time. The weakness highlights the absence of a predator, despite the £30m expended on Andriy Shevchenko.
Mourinho yearned for a penalty soon after the interval which could have been decisive but even if the handball by Alvaro Arbeloa was intentional it occurred outside the area. Chelsea should have imposed their own punishment on an indifferent Liverpool, who roused themselves to only a modest extent in the second half.
The evening closed with Chelsea in command. The visitors' goalkeeper, Pepe Reina, had to keeping the deficit under control by reaching a Frank Lampard volley in the 81st minute. Joe Cole, the scorer, and Didier Drogba, the provider, had been key presences, along with Ricardo Carvalho, in ensuring a promising outcome for Chelsea. Desperation may rage at Anfield, but this was mostly a temperate affair.
Next Tuesday's return will be tempestuous and Rafael Benítez must hope that the electrical storm of the emotions will generate an onslaught. He has known for quite a while that his forwards alone cannot be relied upon for that, and Chelsea marshalled them without difficulty. Only once did an equaliser seem feasible.
Benítez's team had more vim after the interval and in the 53rd minute a throw-in was only partly cleared by Mikel John Obi. It dropped to Steven Gerrard and his excellent volley demanded the utmost of Petr Cech, who tipped the effort around the post. Liverpool had replaced Craig Bellamy with Peter Crouch just before that but the attack was not galvanised.
Although there was no spectacle to compare with the first of this week's Champions League semi-finals, those who feared that the entire goal allocation for both fixtures had been exhausted in Manchester United's 3-2 victory over Milan received some comfort. The advantage that Chelsea took in the 29th minute was overdue. Even though Liverpool frequently occupied territory they were ill at ease when Mourinho's men surged out.
Benítez had been compelled to do without Steve Finnan because of a recurrence of the right-back's neck injury but the minor reshuffle did not explain the vulnerability. Chelsea were no longer the jaded bunch who had dragged themselves through a goalless draw at Newcastle on Sunday. Fatigue decreases in inverse proportion to the importance of the occasion and the home side were sharp at times.
The breakthrough was a delight. It started with Carvalho, a centre-half whose buoyant form has been essential while John Terry continues to appear subdued after back surgery. He came out of defence confidently and stroked a pass down the right that let Drogba sprint. The dynamism of that burst put Daniel Agger under stress and the Ivorian also showed elusive deftness to turn the ball across the face of goal. Joe Cole, who had made a long and intelligent break of his own, claimed his reward for that exertion by eluding Javier Mascherano to shoot home the cross.
Liverpool, by comparison, were more earnest than incisive and there has been no goal for them on this ground since January 2004, when Bruno Cheyrou delivered a 1-0 victory.
For a side with such a meticulous manager, they were surprisingly sloppy at times in this match. Misplaced passes, one from Mascherano and the other from John Arne Riise, twice released Drogba. The forward was outnumbered on the first occasion and, on the second, took too long to see Joe Cole and then misdirected the ball. Drogba, none the less, was a terror. Lampard should have scored from his header in the ninth minute but did not connect cleanly enough, so letting Reina save.
After 17 minutes Drogba headed an Ashley Cole pass to the inconsequential Shevchenko, who ripped a low cross just out of Joe Cole's reach. Drogba ought to have struck later but barely brushed Joe Cole's delivery with his head as Reina charged towards him. The inability to extend the lead in the first half was Chelsea's principal flaw.
They are rather accustomed to living by narrow margins. Unless there is to be a penalty shoot-out, Liverpool will have to score twice at Anfield and deny Chelsea a goal.
Mourinho's line-up is, for purposes of comparison, in better shape than it was after the first leg of the quarter-final, in which they were held 1-1 by Valencia at Stamford Bridge. If Liverpool do pull off a recovery it will be an even greater achievement than the 2005 victory over Chelsea.
Champions League semi-final, first leg
Wednesday April 25, 2007
FT Chelsea 1-0 Liverpool
29' Cole 1-0
Petr Cech, Ricardo Carvalho, Ashley Cole, Renato Paulo Ferreira, John Terry, Joe Cole (Shaun Wright-Phillips), Frank Lampard, Claude Makelele, John Obi Mikel, Didier Drogba, Andriy Shevchenko (Salomon Kalou)
Jose Manuel Reina, Daniel Agger, Alvaro Arbeloa, Jamie Carragher, John Arne Riise, Xabi Alonso (Jermaine Pennant), Steven Gerrard, Javier Mascherano, Boudewijn Zenden, Craig Bellamy (Peter Crouch), Dirk Kuyt
Referee: Merk, M
Venue: Stamford Bridge
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