Brave Reds can hold heads high

ON a day when the Liverpool anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone takes on even greater emotional significance, it is particularly apt that the club’s players and supporters can hold their heads up high today.

Last night, pride came after Liverpool’s fall.

Rafa Benitez’s team produced one of the most heroic performances in the Reds’ illustrious history as they came agonisingly close to conjuring up the kind of sensational result which would have stunned football.

It is Chelsea who take their place in the last four of this season’s Champions League, but it is Liverpool who again defied logic and who almost created a tale of the unexpected to rival even that which was written in Istanbul.

They may have lost the tie, but the Anfield men will have only added to their army of admirers with a display of such courage that it surely matched anything ever produced by a Liverpool team in a losing cause.

Before the second leg got underway, Benitez and several of his players had been at pains to tell the club’s fans that the 96 who died at Hillsborough 20 years ago today were uppermost in their thoughts and that they would play in their honour.

To a man they were as good as their word. Although they were unable to secure the unlikely victory which they so dearly wanted to dedicate to the families of the bereaved, they still emerged with their honour very much intact.

Last week’s events at Anfield meant Chelsea were the strongest of favourites to qualify for the semi-finals. Rightly so, as no team had ever overturned a first leg 3-1 deficit away from home.

But in the first half, Liverpool played with a verve and a collective determination which threatened to make a mockery of the record book. While the 2-0 lead they had established by the interval was certainly welcome, it did not actually provide a total reflection of just how dominant the visitors had been.

Fabio Aurelio’s quick thinking had shown up the struggling Petr Cech’s tendency to drift too close to his far post at deadball situations, a weakness Benitez had picked up on in the Anfield leg of this pulsating tie.

Cech’s very own version of zonal marking – he picks up one area and the free kick taker shoots towards another – was shown to be wholly inadequate as Liverpool’s Brazilian set piece specialist produced a more than passable impression of a certain Gary McAllister.

Xabi Alonso then doubled the lead from the penalty spot after first leg hero Branislav Ivanovic showed that he can do impressions of his own – in his case, the Boston Strangler.

The midfield maestro did the rest after referee Luis Cantalejo duly pointed to the spot. It would be tempting to point out that from that point on the erratic Spanish official seemed keen to even things up by awarding every 50/50 decision in Chelsea’s favour – and there would be more than enough evidence to mount a case to that effect.

But it would only serve to cheapen Liverpool’s Herculean efforts and detract from one of the greatest games the Champions League will ever see if the referee was the subject of too much criticism.

One of the main reasons why this clash was such a thrilling spectacle was that mistakes were being made all over the pitch and unfortunately for Pepe Reina he made one which helped bring Guus Hiddink’s side back into the game. The Spanish keeper should have dealt better with a near post prod from Didier Drogba – a man who is to balance what Amy Winehouse is to sobriety – and all of a sudden Chelsea’s players went from not wanting the ball to being desperate for possession.

Reina has been one of Liverpool’s star performers this season and such errors are incredibly rare.

While the Chelsea fans – who had disgracefully booed their own team off just minutes earlier – attempted to mock him it was significant and wholly right that those in the away end chanted his name.

There was nothing he could do to stop Chelsea’s equaliser as Alex thumped home a howitzer of a free kick to swing the pendulum back in favour of the Blues.

And worse was to follow for Liverpool as Frank Lampard took advantage of some tired legs in the Reds backline to seemingly put the tie beyond doubt.

Anyone who thought it was all over at that stage reckoned without the seemingly endless reserves of character and willpower which Liverpool are able to dig into when their backs are pressed against the wall.

Lucas brought the tie back to life with a deflected effort as Liverpool became the first away side ever to score three goals at Stamford Bridge in Europe.

When Dirk Kuyt scored a close range header it left them needing just one more goal to create the kind of history which legends are made of.

With such a precious prize having been brought back so tantalisingly into reach, all Liverpool could do was commit men forward in hope of fulfilling a previously impossible dream.

Their spirit of adventure proved to be their downfall as Chelsea broke away and Lampard got his second of the night. Even then there was still time for substitute David Ngog to have a shot cleared off the line as Liverpool refused to lie down and accept their fate. In the end, their efforts counted for nothing as Chelsea booked their passage to a glamour tie with Barcelona in the semi-finals.

The reality is that Liverpool cost themselves a trip to the Nou Camp with the mountain they gave themselves to climb after the first leg.

But the fact that they came so close to scaling the highest of peaks does them so much credit that it would be harsh and perhaps even unfair to be critical of them for whichever shortcomings mean they will not be adding to their five European Cups. Well, not this season anyway.

Heroes to a man they are now faced with the task of licking their wounds and coming back to another domestic battle, this time with Manchester United in the tussle for the Premier League title.

Should they continue to show the same character and spirit then they will push United all the way at the very least.

Like everyone else on Merseyside though, their focus today will be on taking part in a fitting memorial to the victims of Hillsborough.

They can do so in the knowledge that last night they did their club and their fans as proud as it is possible to imagine without victory being secured.

Copyright - Liverpool Echo

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