Chelsea shut the door on Liverpool

The team that Rafa Benitez named appeared devoid of any attacking inspiration save for their fantastic Spanish striker Fernando Torres. Gerrard was to be rested, and in so doing the Liverpool manager appeared to have sacrificed his side’s European ambitions in favour of the search for his first Premiership title, writes Harry Catchpole.

Given Liverpool’s fantastic European performances in recent years there was a glimmer of hope as they approached the second leg of their Champions League quarterfinal match with Chelsea, 3-1 down from the first leg at Anfield. It was a night where a miracle was required at Stamford Bridge — and for those who dared to dream, for 45 minutes the impossible seemed to have materialised — before Chelsea shut the door on another chapter of Liverpool’s European history.

As the news came in a few hours before kick-off that Rafa Benitez was not to risk Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard (who was struggling with a thigh strain) even the most impassioned Liverpool supporter may have considered any hope to have died there and then. The team that Benitez named appeared devoid of any attacking inspiration save for their fantastic Spanish striker Fernando Torres. Gerrard was to be rested, and in so doing Benitez appeared to have sacrificed his side’s European ambitions in favour of the search for his first Premiership title.

Gerrard is Liverpool’s talisman, their driving force. With Gerrard on the pitch it seems that anything is possible. In the 2005 Champions League final, Gerrard led Liverpool’s second-half comeback from the improbable position of 3-0 down against the European giants AC Milan to win after extra time on penalties. He was quite simply magnificent. Without his raw, local passion Liverpool’s chances against Chelsea looked slim to none.

However, for 45 minutes Benitez’s team selection appeared to be a stroke of genius. His side dominated the first half, outplaying Chelsea in every facet of the game; without panic or desperation they pulled back two of the three required goals. Firstly through an exquisitely placed Aurelio free kick, catching the Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech advancing off his line too eagerly for a cross that never came, and then an emphatic Xabi Alonso penalty, after he himself was manhandled in the area by Chelsea’s two-goal hero of last week, Ivanovic. Benitez was creating history even without his imposing midfield general Gerrard.

Chelsea came out in the second half a more composed and determined side. Nicolas Anelka, a late first half substitute, made a difference, and it was his cross in the 52nd minute from wide on the right that Didier Drogba was able to poke a toe at, taking it past Liverpool goalkeeper Reina to make it 2-1. Alex then made it 2-2 five minutes later with a thunderous free kick, before Frank Lampard put his team ahead for the first time on a memorable night, with a smart finish to Drogba’s low cross in the 76th minute.

Without Gerrard, Liverpool now lacked stability in the centre of midfield. Alonso, who had been so instrumental in all that was good in Liverpool’s first half, was marginalised by the ever more impressive Lampard and Essien, whom Gerrard surely would have subdued.

Having clawed back the tie from the brink only to lose it again Benitez once more withdrew his most valuable cards from the table — this time in the form of striker Fernando Torres. Considering the game to be over Benitez was now surely thinking of the Premiership title.

Liverpool required three more goals in 14 minutes, impossible. But this was Liverpool in Europe where nothing is impossible. A deflected shot from Lucas in the 80th minute followed two minutes later by a Dirk Kuyt header from substitute Albert Riera’s smart cross making it 6-5 on aggregate, left Liverpool with eight minutes to find one more goal and make even their previous European exploits look tame.

Benitez now surely would have given anything to have both Gerrard and Torres on the pitch striving for that dream goal. But it was not to be. Lampard scored his second and Chelsea’s fourth on the night to put the tie beyond Liverpool. On a night that had all the drama one game can muster, this time, there was to be no fantasy finish for Liverpool.

Benitez and Liverpool must now turn their attentions to the Premiership title challenge.