Chelsea 3 Liverpool 2 (Chelsea win 4-3 on agg): Lampard summons remarkable courage to fire Chelsea through
That was worth £580m of any Russian oligarch's money. But let's start where football meets something more profound than Chelsea's first Champions League final, a moment in the 98th minute when Frank Lampard buried his face in the wet grass by the touchline while, in front of him, Stamford Bridge went berserk over the penalty he had just scored.
If you could just tear yourself away for a second from the extraordinary game that was unfolding it was worth considering the poignancy of Lampard's personal journey. Moments earlier with the game at 1-1, playing in his first match back since the death of his mother Pat on Thursday, Lampard had taken the penalty that virtually decided this game. That was something special, but on the night that Chelsea finally made good on Roman Abramovich's personal investment, there was plenty to admire among the men in blue shirts.
Alongside Lampard, Chelsea gave thanks to Didier Drogba whose two goals last night say that, unquestionably, he is a man for the big occasion, a player capable of carrying them all the way against Manchester United in Moscow on 21 May. Liverpool were not easily disposed of, they reinvented themselves after a first half in which they should have been beaten out of sight. Through Fernando Torres's equaliser they took this game to extra-time before eventually Rafael Benitez's powers of improvisation, maybe even his good fortune, ran out.
Last year's FA Cup final is this year's Champions League final and before then Chelsea have the opportunity to unnerve United as they chase them down the final straight of the Premier League title race. Never have two English clubs approached the last three matches of their season with so much at stake and so much to lose. They are carving up the two richest prizes in club football between them in a thrilling end to the season.
Most improbable are the identities of the two men who face each other over the dugout. Not Sir Alex Ferguson whose career seems to have been building to a moment like this. But how did we end up in one of English football's most dramatic chapters with Avram Grant in charge of one of the protagonists? He finished last night's game on his knees on the pitch genuflecting to persons unknown. Grant said it was a tribute to his father, a Holocaust survivor; it could equally have been to his powerful friend Abramovich sat high in the West Stand, out of sight behind the glass of the executive boxes.
For the first time since he took over from Jose Mourinho at Chelsea in September, Grant felt brave enough to step onto the pitch and wave to the home crowd. It would be fair to say that the response was unremarkable. Stamford Bridge was lost in a rapture that was new to Chelsea fans, but none of them yet seem to think that they owe it all to the unassuming little Israeli in the dark suit.
By the end of this astonishing game tactical forethought was out the window. Ryan Babel scored Liverpool's second with four minutes left to make it 3-2 on the night – one more goal and it would have been his side in the final. By then Sami Hyypia was playing in attack and Benitez, stubborn, unreadable to the end had taken off Torres and still refused to bring on Peter Crouch, even though he needed a goal to save him. Sometimes the Liverpool manager is just too clever for his own good.
Certainly Torres and, to a lesser extent, Steven Gerrard looked out of sorts in the first half. Rain for most of the day in west London meant that the pitch was treacherous and slippery. Passes went astray or slowed down in the wet. Chelsea's groundstaff have probably been a man down since Saturday's post-match dust-up with Patrice Evra and they will need every pair of hands to restore this pitch.
The game slipped and slid away from Liverpool, Martin Skrtel hobbled off injured after 22 minutes, a major blow to Benitez. In unpromising conditions it was Chelsea who adapted quickest. Michael Ballack and Lampard were the more sure-footed and on 33 minutes it was the Englishman who made his side's first goal. Salomon Kalou ran on to Lampard's ball and hit a shot across Jose Reina that the Liverpool goalkeeper did well to save. Drogba had timed his run late and cracked the loose ball first time past the recovering Reina.
Moments later Drogba was sliding on his knees in front of Benitez, mocking his claims that the Chelsea striker was a diver. The Chelsea fans loved it; the Liverpool manager pretended not to notice. There was a swagger to Chelsea that they had cracked Liverpool's code at last. Ballack struck a free-kick against the stanchion. They seemed to be saying they could finish Liverpool off at any time.
Benitez made changes at half-time, Dirk Kuyt was restored to the wing and he changed sides with Yossi Benayoun. The moment when Chelsea should have killed off their opposition came and went and then Torres struck. Benayoun picked the ball up on the right wing and set off on his only decisive action of the match. Drogba got alongside him but never made the tackle. Benayoun took his chance, Torres had backed into his man to create the space for a pass – the striker flicked the ball past Petr Cech.
Liverpool had taken Grant's team to a dark place and in the break before extra-time they looked as if they had the greater appetite. Five minutes later Michael Essien had a goal disallowed for offside but Chelsea smelled blood. Hyypia upended Ballack in the box and Lampard scored the penalty. Drogba added the second from Nicolas Anelka's cut back and this game seemed to be over.
History will probably forget that, with his team leading 3-1, Cech threw in Babel's late goal because Chelsea held on. Liverpool's season is over now and the sight of American co-owner Tom Hicks after the game, striding across the turf towards the tunnel reminded us that there is much more unfinished business at that club. So too at Chelsea where the miracle of Grant is that he has probably done enough already to keep his job and is one game away from a trophy that is not supposed to be the preserve of novices and unknowns.
Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Cech; Essien, Carvalho, Terry, A Cole; Makelele; J Cole (Anelka, 90), Lampard (Shevchenko, 118), Ballack, Kalou (Malouda, 70); Drogba. Substitutes not used: Cudicini (gk), Mikel, Alex, Belletti.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Arbeloa, Carragher, Skrtel (Hyypia, 22), Riise; Alonso, Mascherano; Kuyt, Gerrard, Benayoun (Pennant, 78); Torres (Babel, 99). Substitutes not used: Itandje (gk), Finnan, Crouch, Lucas.
Referee: R Rosetti (Italy).
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