In his youth, Peter Crouch would dream of pulling on the blue shirt of his heroes Chelsea and taking centre stage at Stamford Bridge. When the Liverpool striker returned to the club last night, he claimed the headlines for the wrong reasons. As Frank Lampard and Andriy Shevchenko conjured the goals that sent Chelsea through to the Carling Cup semi-finals and a two-legged meeting with Everton, Crouch was dragged down by a costly rush of blood.
The Londoner had battled on his own up front and squandered two presentable chances when he lashed out by the touchline in a challenge with Mikel John Obi. Crouch leapt in with both feet off the ground and although he made little damaging contact with the Chelsea midfielder, the referee, Martin Atkinson, had seen enough intent to reach for the red card. Mikel was sent into the advertising boards and Crouch, rather than exit immediately, went back to offer him a less than polite pointer. When he did leave the field, it was with a volley of abuse for the Chelsea fans who had goaded him all evening.
Rafael Benítez, the Liverpool manager, argued that Mikel had fouled Crouch twice in the build-up and if Atkinson had intervened then, the ugliness could have been prevented. Yet even he could not excuse Crouch's assault.
Chelsea's manager Avram Grant did not pull his punches. "He didn't need to do it," he said. "It was on the line and in the middle of the pitch. It was far away [from anywhere meaningful]. I respect Rafa Benítez a lot but firstly, it was a bad tackle and secondly, there were so many fouls made on Mikel, I think there were seven or eight in the first half. The priority of the game is to protect people from bad tackles. You saw what happened to John Terry [who was injured at Arsenal], he is out for six weeks."
This was the 17th meeting of the Benítez era and spite has crackled throughout most of them. Another staple of the matches has been their tightness and even with a weakened Liverpool line-up, it appeared that something abnormal, something freakish, would be required to prise the teams apart. So it proved. Lampard's goal was the pivotal moment and it went in thanks to a cruel deflection off Jamie Carragher.
Lampard had burst on to a flick from Shevchenko; Carragher seemed to have him tracked. But when Lampard shot, the ball looped up off Carragher's outstretched boot, deceived Charles Itandje, the stand-in Liverpool goalkeeper, and landed in the far corner.
Shevchenko wrapped up the victory when he rammed home a low shot in injury time, beating the otherwise impressive Itandje at his near post, following good work by Michael Ballack. Shevchenko's delight at his fifth goal of the season was matched by Ballack. The Germany captain had not played since April and two ankle operations, a dark period during which he feared he might never play again. "Sometimes I thought, 'I'm 31, I've had 14 good years as a pro, maybe it's over'," he said on the eve of the game. "There have been moments of real despair." A weight was lifted when he appeared as a substitute.
Liverpool have still to score in seven matches under Benítez at Stamford Bridge but they had the chances here. Crouch was played in early on by Lucas Leiva but he dragged his shot well wide and, shortly after, a slick move had Chelsea chasing shadows and Lucas bearing down on Petr Cech. This time the shot speared towards the far corner, but Cech's reflexes stood the test. Lucas wheeled away in frustration.
Chelsea had several excellent chances. Salomon Kalou forced Itandje to tip over his bar and Lampard, clean through after a defensive mix-up, could not lift the ball over the keeper.
Benítez left a host of star names at home but his hopes surged in the 56th minute when Crouch seized on an awful back-header by Ricardo Carvalho, back after six weeks out with a back injury. Yet Crouch could not find a way past the alert Cech. Moments later, Lampard's goal was followed by Crouch's red mist. Game over.
59' Lampard 1-0
90' Shevchenko 2-0
Petr Cech, Juliano Belletti, Tal Ben Haim, Wayne Bridge, Ricardo Carvalho, Michael Essien, Frank Lampard, John Obi Mikel (Michael Ballack), Salomon Kalou, Andriy Shevchenko (Steve Sidwell), Scott Sinclair (Joe Cole)
Charles Itandje, Alvaro Arbeloa, Fabio Aurelio, Jamie Carragher, Jack Hobbs, Xabi Alonso (Nabil El Zhar), Lucas Leiva, Mohamed Sissoko, Ryan Babel (Yossi Benayoun), Peter Crouch, Andriy Voronin
Referee: Atkinson, M
Venue: Stamford Bridge
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