Match of the season

ABOUT an hour-and-a-half before kick off, the news broke that Steven Gerrard was not even in Liverpool’s squad. My phone beeped – a text message from a friend. “Liverpool have given up, then,” it read. Well, not quite, as it turned out.

Football is, for the most part, an incredibly frustrating game. I have spent more than one Saturday afternoon freezing my sorry ass off at a match I knew was going to end goalless within the first 15 minutes. And a colleague of mine has covered so many 0-0 draws this season that his mere presence in the press box sparks a stampede for the bookies.

And yet, occasionally, football is brilliant. Tonight’s match between Chelsea and Liverpool was not the first Champions League quarter-final I have seen produce eight goals – I was on reporting duty at Old Trafford when Manchester United thumped Roma 7-1 two seasons ago. But it was the most dramatic.

I’d love to know what Chelsea are trying to do to Guus Hiddink’s nerves. Hiddink sounded pretty miffed after his team almost managed to blow a 4-0 lead at home to Bolton on Saturday. This time, they were far more creative in their attempts to drive their temporary manager towards insanity. So creative, in fact, that Radio Five Live’s Mike Ingham seemed to lose track of the aggregate score in the final 10 minutes.

(It’ll be a GCSE maths question in a few years: If Chelsea win the away leg 3-1, then find themselves 4-3 down in the home leg, how far is Guus from the semi-final? Show your working out. Use additional sheets as necessary.)

Tonight’s match will, strangely, have given Liverpool encouragement. They proved they can be an attacking force without Gerrard – and they may have to be, if his groin injury fails to respond to rest. Blimey, even Lucas scored, and his appearance on the team sheet always meets with groans from every Liverpool fan I know.

The match also gave yet another knock to Petr Cech’s fast-disappearing reputation. Four years ago, he was perhaps the world’s greatest goalkeeper – frequently heroic in a Chelsea title-winning side who rarely conceded goals. Maybe the horrific injuries he suffered at Reading two-and-a-half years ago have affected his confidence. I suspect it’s not quite as simple as that – but nonetheless, he has been on the slide for a while.

Remember Euro 2008, when his hopeless late fumble at the feet of Turkey’s captain Nihat Kahveci set up the Cezch Republic’s tournament exit on a mad night in Geneva? It was dismissed by many at the time as an inexplicable error from a man normally so reliable. But his goalkeeping since then has been riddled with nervy moments.

There were more than a few tonight in a match almost as crazy as that Turkey-Czech Republic game. I can’t believe the Cech of 2005 would have been caught out so embarrassingly on his near post by Fabio Aurelio’s early free kick, which gave Liverpool hope.

Although Cech was not directly responsible for the other three goals he conceded, the Czech flapped at too many crosses behind a defence which looked as solid as a jelly in a hurricane.

Mind you, it wasn’t a great night for keepers. Pepe Reina made an absolute dog’s dinner of Nicolas Anelka’s cross – deflected towards goal by Didier Drogba – early in the second half, and that gave Chelsea enough encouragement to score the goals that rendered their own wobbly defending irrelevant.

It’s probably wrong to be too critical, though, after a game such as that. Wonderful entertainment, some brilliant goals – Alex’s free kick couldn’t have been more ferocious if he’d fired it from a cannon – and gripping drama. Cech admitted afterwards that he hadn’t enjoyed it much, while Hiddink sounded less than pleased with some aspects of his team’s performance. But I thought it was just grand.

Barcelona in the semi-finals next. They’ve got some decent players themselves, you know, including some chap called Messi. If that tie is half as good as Chelsea v Liverpool, we’ll be as spoiled as the attendees at the ambassador’s Ferrero Rocher party.


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