If this match represents the tired, predictable English domination of the Champions League, then let's have it every week. Let's have eight goals, four comebacks and a match that could justifiably be called one of the greatest ever. Let's have entertainment and every assumption you ever made about the destiny of a football match challenged in one evening.
Defenders scored free-kicks, two great goalkeepers lost their heads and no one could quite remember a game played with such reckless abandon. Even Rafael Benitez lost his cool, raging against the Spanish fourth official, raging against a game he could scarcely comprehend. He substituted Fernando Torres and then Liverpool scored two goals to get right back in it. Even Benitez, the master strategist, had thought the game was lost. No shame in that: we all did.
Steven Gerrard? He was not even playing. The Anfield miracle-worker-in-chief was absent as his team rolled Chelsea back in the first half, with two goals and an utterly dominant performance that went some way to healing the pain of the 3-1 defeat in the first leg of this Champions' League quarter-final. But there was more than just a recovery of pride: with two goals Liverpool were back in this tie and Chelsea's defence was as chaotic as Benitez's had been one week earlier. Would it have been any different with Gerrard?
But there was no time to think about those not playing, so absorbing, so rapidly changing were the events on the pitch. Petr Cech's first half was a disaster, the second barely any better, and you had to wonder what the hell would happen if Chelsea play the same way against Barcelona in the semi-final. Liverpool attacked with none of the inhibition that has blighted them in the past and in the second half Chelsea did exactly the same.
What will be remembered from this night was the sheer courage of both teams to take the game by the throat, however unpromising the circumstances. After Fabio Aurelio and Xabi Alonso's goals – and a half-time bollocking from the most laid-back Dutchman this side of the North Sea – Chelsea responded with their very best. However unlovable this team might have been at times during the Roman Abramovich years, their spirit has never been in question.
Didier Drogba, Alex Da Costa and Frank Lampard brought the score to 3-2 on the night and that, surely, was that. Benitez, ever the pragmatist, thought so and summoned Torres to the bench with the intention of keeping him fresh for Tuesday's game against Arsenal. It was basically a surrender and you could understand why. Then within three minutes Lucas Leiva and Dirk Kuyt scored the goals that made the game 4-3 to Liverpool and suddenly Torres was exactly the man Liverpool needed on the pitch.
There are not many games which require you to glance up at the scoreboard to double-check the score, not many when every attack matters so much. Even when Lampard equalised with his second goal to make it 4-4 no one was certain it was over: David Ngog had a shot cleared off the line by Michael Essien. This was reckless, breathtaking stuff that disturbed even the inner calm of Benitez and Hiddink. At times both these two modern giants of management got it wrong tactically.
It will be no consolation to Liverpool, and it may not matter to Chelsea, but the post-match conduct of their two managers befitted a fabulous evening. There was enough in this game to spark a thousand arguments, enough for a lifetime of grudges, but Hiddink and Benitez, in particular, chose to let a wonderful game speak for itself. This was the kind of night which must make a manager question his own effectiveness. No matter, they both kept their dignity.
Perhaps it was the release of emotion after the game, perhaps it was the glass of wine that Hiddink had promised himself, but he virtually admitted that Cech was in a crisis of confidence that had begun with the three goals he had conceded against Bolton on Saturday. It is unlikely that the goalkeeper will be dropped for Saturday's FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal, but after his five seasons as a fixture in this team nothing is certain any longer.
A needless shove by Ricardo Carvalho on Torres gave Liverpool the free-kick from which they scored on 19 minutes. Only Fabio Aurelio, on the right wing, noticed that Cech had shuffled far enough to the far side of his goal to expose an area of the net worth shooting at. As soon as the Brazilian hit it, everyone in the ground knew it was in. Cech tried to recover but Aurelio had placed it beautifully, just inside the post and the goalkeeper was never even close.
It was not just the goal that lifted Liverpool, it was the sheer inventiveness of it. Alonso was running the match, Lampard was stranded too far forward and Liverpool looked fitter and stronger in every area. Branislav Ivanovic misjudged disastrously for the second goal, grappling Alonso so blatantly that the Spanish referee had no choice but to award a penalty. Alonso scored, Chelsea were collapsing.
With John Terry in the dugout and reduced to haranguing the fourth official, Chelsea were in chaos and the score was 3-3 on aggregate. The back four sat deeper and deeper, Cech came for a cross and missed. Half-time was Chelsea's salvation. Two minutes into the new half, Cech chased Lucas to the edge of the area and did not get the ball. He looked a liability. Then Chelsea got a break.
Nicolas Anelka, brought on for Salomon Kalou in the first half, crossed, Drogba seemed to get a touch and Pepe Reina pushed the ball into his own net. Back came Chelsea. A piledriver of a free-kick from Alex and a third goal from Lampard from Anelka's cross. The game was relentless. Ashley Cole was booked and misses the semi-final first leg against Barcelona. Torres came off and Liverpool came back.
Lucas's shot deflected in off Essien; Kuyt headed in a cross from the substitute Albert Riera: 4-3 to Liverpool. Mayhem. One goal would do it for Liverpool but it was Lampard who beat Reina brilliantly from the edge of the area from Anelka's lay-off to make the score 4-4. Was it over? It was not possible to take anything for granted until the final whistle. This was a benchmark for English football, the kind of night that – for all the nonsense in our game – deserves to be treasured.
Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Cech; Ivanovic, Alex, Carvalho, A Cole; Essien; Kalou (Anelka, 36), Ballack, Lampard, Malouda; Drogba (Di Santo, 90). Substitutes not used: Hilario (gk), Mikel, Deco, Belletti, Mancienne.
Liverpool (4-3-2-1): Reina; Arbeloa (Babel, 85), Carragher, Skrtel, Aurelio; Lucas, Mascherano (Riera, 69), Alonso; Kuyt, Benayoun; Torres (Ngog, 80). Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Dossena, Hyypia, Agger.
Referee: L M Cantalejo (Spain).
Man for man marking by Steve Tongue
Petr Cech Caught out for opening goal and it seemed to affect him for the rest of night 4/10
Branislav Ivanovic Unlikely hero of first leg quickly became a villain with his penalty area wrestling 6
Alex Man who once knocked Arsenal out did for Liverpool with his swerving free-kick 7
Ricardo Carvalho Back for suspended John Terry, he recovered, like his team, from testing first half 6
Ashley Cole Given difficult night by Dirk Kuyt and misses the next game after a yellow card 6
Michael Ballack More leadership might have been expected in Terry's absence but he set up third goal well 6
Michael Essien No Steven Gerrard to subdue, but was unable to influence game further forward 6
Frank Lampard Umpteenth episode of his long-running duel with Alonso and his goals gave him edge 7
Salomon Kalou After better game at Anfield was anonymous and replaced before half-time 3
Didier Drogba Fought harder than some despite taking early knock and deserved his goal 8
Florent Malouda Another Chelsea player incapable of reprising his performance from the first leg 6
Nicolas Anelka (for Kalou, 36) Great cross for goal 7; Di Santo (for Drogba, 90) n/a
Pepe Reina Solid handling and positioning until Anelka whipped in his low cross for Drogba 5/10
Alvaro Arbeloa Keen to push forward and kept Malouda quieter than in the first leg. Booked 6
Jamie Carragher Nobody wanted to succeed more than stand-in captain, who led from back, all in vain 7
Martin Skrtel Needed all Carragher's experience alongside him in the struggle to tame Drogba 6
Fabio Aurelio Delicious free-kick to fool Cech but could not prevent Anelka setting up Reina's blunder 6
Lucas Leiva Filling Gerrard's boots and crucial role was an impossible task, despite his late goal 5
Javier Mascherano Badly missed in first game, he did well and was unlucky victim of a tactical change 7
Xabi Alonso Mixed success with his long passes but converted penalty more coolly than in Istanbul 7
Dirk Kuyt Industrious and energetic as ever down the right flank, where he gave Cole a hard time 7
Yossi Benayoun Preferred to Albert Riera on the left and switched inside later to no greater effect 6
Fernando Torres Missed a good chance even before Liverpool goals but continued to induce nerves 7
Albert Riera (for Mascherano, 69) 7; David Ngog (for Torres, 80) 7; Ryan Babel (for Arbeloa, 85) n/aReuse content