Glenn Moore: Drogba wakes up to rouse Blues
Wednesday 15 April 2009
It had been done in a Champions League quarter-final. This year. It was, admittedly, in the Concacaf version rather than Uefa's, but Santos Laguna faced an even greater task in Montreal last month than Liverpool did against Chelsea, being 4-1 down to the Impact on aggregate at half-time in the second leg. The Mexicans scored four times in the second period to progress. Only a tin-pot competition? There were more than 55,000 in Montreal's Olympic Stadium for the first leg, 12,000 more than were at Stamford Bridge last night.
It is unlikely that "remember Santos Laguna" was the rallying cry as Liverpool left the dressing room last night but it showed what can happen. But, surely not, not against a team as experienced as Chelsea, with Guus Hiddink as manager. And especially not with Steven Gerrard sat in the posh seats of the East Stand.
In the (not much) cheaper seats in the corner of Stamford Bridge housing the travelling support was a wall of red banners, many proclaiming "Justice for the 96" in recognition of today's 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy, and the inability of South Yorkshire Police to confront their failings. But over the Liverpool bench it seemed a white flag had been raised by Gerrard's omission. That the critical role of Fernando Torres' provider had been handed to Lucas hardly inspired confidence. The resting of Albert Riera seemed only to confirm the Premier League title is Rafael Benitez's priority.
Chelsea were without John Terry, who was suspended, but he is not the player of a couple of seasons ago, and otherwise had what appeared a formidable spine at full strength: Petr Cech, Ricardo Carvalho, Michael Essien and Didier Drogba. For too long that spine seemed to have developed a structural fault. Cech was horribly out of sorts; the grievous error which allowed Fabio Aurelio's goal was the first of a series of mistakes which betrayed his fragile confidence. Carvalho was as panicky as anyone in the first half. Essien, the key player in the first leg through his subjugation of Gerrard, seemed unsure of his role in the latter's absence. Liverpool had 59 per cent of first-half possession, mainly because Chelsea kept giving it away, and the manner in which they hacked the ball to all parts was a reminder that Essien, for all his energetic qualities, is no Claude Makelele. The Frenchman, ever available to receive a pass, play it short and take a return, would have calmed Chelsea down and interrupted Liverpool's flow.
And then there was Drogba. Prior to the match Chelsea TV had been showing a rerun of last year's semi-final. There was Andrei Shevchenko running down time by the corner flag, and Avram Grant, the then manager, falling to his knees at the final whistle. It seemed an age ago. Chelsea are seeking their third manager post-Grant, Sheva is warming a different bench. But there are some constants. Under Hiddink, Drogba has seemed to be back to doing what he does best (besides sulking, pouting and falling over): monstering defenders. Liverpool's have been particular victims over the seasons but for a long time last night it seemed Drogba had called a truce. In the opening minutes he went down in apparent season-ending agony after a mild challenge from Jamie Carragher.
This usually means an evening of histrionics is in prospect but for a long time Drogba was simply a bystander. Just occasionally he showed a flicker of involvement, notably a wonderful chest control-and-volleyed pass to Nicolas Anelka.
Five minutes after the break – what did Hiddink say to him in the dressing room? – Drogba came alive. Having seen Anelka breaking down the right he sprinted forward and, as the cross came in, edged that crucial half-yard ahead of Martin Skrtel. Drogba's outstretched boot made the faintest of touches, but it was enough to wrong-foot the goalkeeper Pepe Reina and transform the tie.
Thereafter Drogba was a beast. It was he who was fouled by Carragher for the free-kick which Alex lashed in. Eleven minutes later he brushed Carragher aside before setting up Michael Ballack, who should have settled the tie. Reina saved but, undeterred, Drogba again opted to pass when many would have shot as Ballack sent him clear in the 76th minute. This time the indefatigable Frank Lampard scored and Chelsea were through, just.
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