Riise’s calamity gives Chelsea the upper hand

The Chelsea manager did have four men in attack towards the close but there appeared to be little logic to a plan that had seen the moderately effective Michael Ballack replaced. By Kevin McCarra.

Succeeding in such a way has sent glee coursing through Chelsea. They cannot help but believe that a place in the Champions League final is imminent after an equaliser through John Arne Riise’s own-goal seconds beyond the fourth minute of stoppage-time. The substitute put a diving header from another substitute, Salomon Kalou, past his goalkeeper, José Reina. Riise, who might have hoofed clear, was unnerved by the proximity of a third substitute, Chelsea’s Nicolas Anelka.

Liverpool can barely absorb these events. They were far more dominant that night than they had been when prevailing over the same opponents at Anfield in the second leg of the semifinals last year and in 2005. The manager, Rafael Benítez, was moments away from giving a measured account of the progress Liverpool had made under his stewardship. He would have had every right to do so.

No one, by contrast, knows what explanations could have been proffered by his opposite number, Avram Grant. The Chelsea manager did have four men in attack towards the close but there appeared to be little logic to a plan that had seen the moderately effective Michael Ballack replaced. As it is, the Israeli’s thoughts will be stealing towards a clash with Barcelona or Manchester United in Moscow on May 21.

This image might stop him from dwelling on his recollections of an evening when Liverpool, after the initial half-hour, commanded as Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso took a grip on midfield. This was far more than territorial superiority. In the last five minutes of normal time Benítez’s men nearly delivered the coup de grâce but the superb Petr Cech tipped over a Steven Gerrard drive and then stopped a Fernando Torres shot.

No Liverpool fan would have believed then that their roars at the final whistle would be ones of defiance. Liverpool offered much more than the meticulous pragmatism so associated with the Spaniard.

The instant when his side leapt to a higher level could be timed at 31 minutes. Gerrard had been keeping a low profile but suddenly snapped a pass which freed Torres, another player sticking to a minor role until then. Uncharacteristically, the finish was misdirected and rose a little before banging off the torso of Cech.

All the same, Liverpool had started to skewer Chelsea. Grant’s men yet again lacked the solidity in the Champions League that is second nature in the Premier League and an anxious Ashley Cole could have had a penalty awarded against him for a shove on Dirk Kuyt while the game was goalless.

Having allowed themselves to become unkempt, Chelsea fell behind messily. Two minutes from half-time Frank Lampard was caught in possession by the foraging Kuyt on the fringes of the box.

Mascherano forced play onwards and the Dutchman, despite Claude Makelele’s effort to rescue the situation, knocked the ball through the legs of Cech.

Those who concentrate on domestic affairs could mistake this season as a drab time for Kuyt, with a mere four goals there, but he has had seven more in the Champions League. With that record he has turned into the epitome of a Liverpool side who transform themselves in Europe.

A Chelsea supporter looking around his own team would have doubted if many figures beyond the defence would improve sufficiently to be tolerable. Whether affected by knee problems or shamefully indifferent to the contest, Didier Drogba offered almost nothing and even grew passive. He should have been mortified by the account he was giving of himself.

Joe Cole never fully got over a miscalculation after Lampard had picked him out in the 21st minute. He attempted to finish instantly and hardly connected when there had been time to bring the ball down. It was he who ultimately made way for Kalou.

Kuyt, admittedly, had also been unimpressive when given a semblance of a chance a little before, but he undoubtedly came good. Chelsea merely dwindled.

The build-up was spasmodic and there was no outlet in attack. Liverpool encountered disruption purely when an Achilles injury saw Fabio Aurelio borne away on a stretcher. Despite the sympathy for the left-back, Benítez would have been glad then that he had the experienced Riise to deputise.

The visitors were at the mercy of their own mediocrity. When Ballack did get his head to a Lampard free-kick the ball sped straight to the grasp of Reina, but a few moments later there was a portent for Liverpool as they saw how easily their ascendancy could be undermined.

For once the passes rippled for Chelsea, with Ballack finding Lampard, who slipped the ball to Florent Malouda. The attempt by the ineffective Frenchman was then blocked.