From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.32 :: NO.16 :: Apr. 18, 2009

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FOOTBALL / CHAMPIONS LEAGUE QUARTERFINAL 1ST LEG

Hiddink’s men in complete control
Chelsea was irresistible. Nothing could unsettle the buoyant team for long, not even the loss of the evening’s first goal, writes Kevin McCarra.

AP

Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic (right) scores his second goal of the Champions League quarterfinal first leg match against Liverpool.

Liverpool’s disbelief must be very nearly as great as their despair. It can only be dwarfed by the exultation of Chelsea, who have surely reduced the return leg of the Champions League quarterfinal to a statutory obligation. So confounding is this outcome that it converted John Terry’s booking into a blessing. A ban will be served when the teams meet again and he can go into the remainder of the tournament with a clean disciplinary record.

That is the least of the wonders for Guus Hiddink, a manager whose interim status at Stamford Bridge is in even deeper doubt. How could the owner Roman Abramovich bear to watch him return full-time to his post with Russia now? The Dutchman shone in all areas and his preparation of the set-pieces exposed unsuspected defects in Liverpool’s zonal marking at corners. The Serbian right-back Branislav Ivanovic struck twice, his first goals for the club.

Until this, the only time Chelsea had scored at Anfield over four Champions League fixtures was when John Arne Riise put the ball in his own net last year. The victors were irresistible. Everything worked and Michael Essien’s re-emergence after extended injury has profound resonance now that his close attention has left Steven Gerrard looking like a commonplace footballer.

This is as heavy a margin of defeat at Anfield as Liverpool have ever known in European competition. It is a statistic that also underlines how potent they almost always are at their stronghold. Chelsea, all the same, were buoyant and nothing could unsettle them for long, not even the loss of the evening’s first goal.

Liverpool broke the deadlock in the sixth minute and, giving a misleading impression of what was to come, did so with scant hindrance. Dirk Kuyt passed to Alvaro Arbeloa on the right and his cross was dispatched with the efficiency expected of Fernando Torres.

Chelsea had suffered a collective malfunction then, but the ensuing lapses were all Liverpool’s. Salomon Kalou was soon dispossessing Fabio Aurelio to release Didier Drogba and, while the Ivorian’s shot was saved, it was a sign of things to come from Kalou on the right. Hiddink preferred him to Nicolas Anelka and he reacted with an impact that is at odds with past unobtrusiveness. There was proof everywhere of a fresh start. Liverpool had won both Premier League games with Chelsea in this campaign, but Hiddink had not been in the post then.

Rafael Benitez, for once, did not have a credible battle plan, although he also suffered because too much rests with Gerrard’s fortunes. When the equaliser did arrive it seemed unfeasibly overdue. The oddity was enhanced by the fact that a Benitez team should be so confused while defending a set-piece.

Seven minutes from half-time, Ivanovic ran free of his marker Xabi Alonso, got in front of Martin Skrtel and headed home a corner from the unexpectedly excellent Florent Malouda. The defender had displayed elusive movement then and would do so again, but might have had no role if the regular right full-back, Jose Bosingwa, had not been injured.

Falling behind on the score sheet proved to be a liberation for an adventurous Chelsea. Drogba continued to be provided with openings, but wasted them for a while, as when he rammed a drive high after Michael Ballack had located him meticulously. Before that, the visitors’ centre-forward had been disappointed when his build-up work was not brought to fruition.

For a while, there was an erratic streak to this clash. Untypically, Frank Lampard, for instance, had let himself be robbed by Torres in the 26th minute and the dipping, bending attempt that ensued from the Spaniard came close to establishing a 2-0 advantage. That was virtually the last glimmer of menace from Liverpool.

Benitez’s words must have been roundly ignored in the dressing room. His side were scatty in the 52nd minute as Drogba linked with Lampard and burst clear. After the earlier impetuousness, the striker was studied and eased a shot beyond Reina, only to see Jamie Carragher clear from near the goal-line.

The openness of the action was bewildering and it led to brief mayhem. In one of many slipshod moments, Skrtl neglected to clear and Reina came haring out for the loose ball. Terry also pursued it and collided with the Spaniard. There was a minor melee before the referee Claus Bo Larsen, who had been no disciplinarian in England’s win over Ukraine recently, cautioned him.

Chelsea had too much command to dwell on that and kept punishing a Liverpool team that had unravelled. Gerrard omitted to mark Ivanovic as he climbed to take his second goal from a corner after 62 minutes, sending Lampard’s delivery past Reina.

Hiddink’s team made the opposition look demoralised at their third goal. Malouda, who had by far his best game for Chelsea since signing in 2007, broke loose on the left and his low ball was converted by Drogba for the goal he deserved. The win will be relished at Chelsea, but the promise it held must be more stirring still.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009



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