Champions League victories for both Chelsea and Liverpool last night but it was the latter's achievement that was the more impressive as they brushed aside Real Madrid and swirling speculation over the future of manager Rafael Benitez, to win through Yossi Benayoun's 82nd-minute goal in Spain.
Chelsea triumphed by the same margin, Didier Drogba's first-half strike at Stamford Bridge against Juventus the highlight of a workmanlike performance, although manager Guus Hiddink again complained about a worrying lack of fitness among the squad he has inherited from Luiz Felipe Scolari as they, again, tired badly in the second-half.
"When you can't maintain control in the whole game it is a problem," Hiddink said after his first home game since succeeding the Brazilian. "You can't control everything for 90 minutes but you should be able to control 90 per cent of the game. That is difficult. One of the things I can say is that we are not 'top top' in terms of fitness. The physical level is good but in these high level games you must be more than top."
The questionable conditioning of the Chelsea players and the tactics used by Scolari were part of the criticisms he faced during his seven months at the club. There was another ex-Chelsea manager at Stamford Bridge last night with Juventus's Claudio Ranieri returning to the club he was in charge of for four years before being abruptly sacked by Roman Abramovich. "It shows they have not forgotten me," Ranieri said.
Indeed Ranieri's reception was warmer than the one afforded to Hiddink – who was introduced as Chelsea's manager to the end of the season – but his side succumbed to Drogba's 25th Champions League goal in his 50th appearance in the competition. It was also only his fourth goal of a frustrating season but he is enjoying a resurgence under the new manager.
Afterwards Hiddink said he was "satisfied" with the result but not the "overall performance". "We were a bit anxious and we did not control the second-half," he said. "It's good to have a clean sheet. Now Juventus have to come and try and score at home." The tie is evenly balanced for the return leg in Turin in two weeks' time.
In Madrid, Benayoun's header won the tie, although prior to the match Liverpool executives were forced to dismiss claims, which had grown throughout yesterday, that Benitez was about to be sacked. Defender Jamie Carragher said he had received a text message about the rumour, dismissing it as "a load of nonsense". He added of Benitez's future: "He does not need to go on the record, it was a rumour that spread like wildfire." Such was the ferocity that betting was suspended by bookmakers on Benitez's departure.
Benitez himself said of the rumours: "I didn't know [about them]. I have been talking to my friends and concentrating on the game. I have just been thinking about the game." When pressed he added simply: "I want to concentrate on the games." However his failure, so far, to agree a new contract with the club, and his repetition that he wanted to only "concentrate" on the game shows that problems remain for Benitez at Liverpool.
Although Steven Gerrard returned as a second-half substitute, after being out for three weeks with a hamstring strain, Liverpool lost Fernando Torres to a worrying ankle injury.
Last night's results mean that all four English teams are in strong positions to progress into the quarter-finals of this competition – indeed none conceded a goal after Manchester United's goalless draw against Internazionale and Arsenal's 1-0 victory against Roma on Tuesday – although none of the four ties have been decided.Reuse content