by Anthony Jones at Talklfc
There was a time when English clubs in Europe were said to lack the tactical nouse to succeed. However with the introduction of some of the best coaches the continent has to offer that has changed. It was evident last night as the English Champions met the Champions of Europe in what both sides were billing as a match with little importance. Despite that both sides wanted to win, not least because there is no love lost between the sides. Victory for Chelsea would also see them take top spot and secure a home game in the second leg of the next round and arguably a far better chance of receiving an easier draw. For Liverpool a draw would have been enough to secure first place, a position they held due to their unbeaten run.
Benitez went ahead with his plan to rest Xabi Alonso but the rumoured resting of other key personnel did not materialise. With Traore coming in at left back Riise moved to left midfield whilst Sissoko and Hamann came into the midfield. It meant that Warnock, Kewell and Morientes joined Alonso on the sidelines. With the exception of Makelele Chelsea were at full strength though Mourinho opted for Gallas ahead of Del Horno at left back.
This was the eight meeting between these two sides in just over a year. It has been a throw back to the days of unlimited replays in the FA Cup and the way in which teams would become over familiar. Both of these sides know exactly how the other players, with Liverpool stifling the wingers of Chelsea to force them to play a very direct game. Chelsea on the other hand know to press Liverpool back to isolate Peter Crouch and render his link up play irrelevant.
Liverpool opened the first half in confident fashion and for the opening twenty five minutes they looked comfortable at Stamford Bridge. Passing the ball around well Liverpool were not only denying Chelsea the opportunity to create momentum but also forcing them back into their own half. However their initial control of the game was suddenly misplaced when Garcia casually hit a pass off target. Liverpool scrambled the ball back to Reina who's mishit kick failed to reach half way and the ball was worked back to Lampard who's shot from distance was pushed round the post by the keeper.
Liverpool hit back though and after some good build up play, Gerrard hit a perfectly weighted through ball for Riise who had cut in from the left. Through on goal he struck low and hard but too close to Cech who saved with his outstretched foot. It was the only real chance that came Liverpool's way and in truth the best chance of the game. The other key moments of the half revolved around the officials rather than the goal mouth.
Controversial decisions in matches against these sides are nothing knew. Liverpool's Jamie Carragher can catalog a number of penalty decisions in which Chelsea have received more than just the benefit of the doubt. When Luis Garcia went down under pressure from Terry who had a clear hold of the forward's shorts Carragher no doubt was ready to add it to the list. In truth it was far less clear cut than some of the previous contentious non-decisions but on another night it still could have easily have been given. Worse was to follow though.
When Finnan tripped Duff near the halfway line a free kick was rightly awarded. However as the referee moved towards where the incident had taken place play moved on with the ball. As Hamann came in to win the ball, Michael Essien launched into what can only be described as an assault on the German. Almost knee high Essien's foot struck the top of Hamann's shin and left him writhing on the ball. It happened out of the view of the official who'd failed to follow the action whilst both his assistant and fourth official who must have been in close attendance also missed it. Essien walked away sheepishly recognising he'd escaped punishment for his actions. Liverpool were rightly incensed, Mourinho and his players unsurprisingly failed to see the incident though they managed to see a later one involving Sissoko. That event happened when Sissoko stretched to win the ball back after losing control of it. His foot landed on top of the ball and as is the nature of a round object, it rolled and Sissoko caught Gudjohnsen. At worst it was clumsy play and with another official might have resulted in a booking, the official though saw it and deemed no such action necessary.
The second half was played out much as the final stages of the first period had. With Liverpool defending deep Crouch cut an increasingly forlorn figure whilst Garcia and Riise struggled to get involved as attacking forces. That said, both joined in with Gerrard, Hamann and Sissoko in providing an admirable barrier in front of the Liverpool defence. Chelsea were rarely able to get the ball into a position where they could run at a Liverpool centre half or full back. Chelsea resorted to playing percentage balls into the box, most of which were dealt with easily by the impressive Hyypia and Carragher. Finnan misjudged a couple of crosses whilst Traore had the odd nervous moment as he failed to convincingly deal with the ball but for the most part they held their ground. Liverpool were occasionally aided by the linesman who failed to notice the Liverpool defender playing the Chelsea forwards onside. Though in truth on two of the three times he flagged incorrectly, Chelsea had already wasted the opportunity by shooting high over Reina's goal.
So in the end the result was far more to Liverpool's liking. It will no doubt frustrate Mourinho who remains bitter about last season's Champions League exit. That fact will add to the satisfaction of the Liverpool fans who have now seen their side go nine games unbeaten without conceding a goal. Whilst Liverpool could have done more in an attacking sense, they ultimately came with a game plan and stuck to it from start to finish. The game also represented an opportunity for Kewell to get more minutes under his belt whilst Sinama-Pongolle was also given a late run out and provided a spark that had been missing to the Liverpool forward play. With Morientes also being used from the bench it was another night of inactivity for Djibril Cisse who seems destined to depart.