A great occasion and a terrible game: it is what we have come to expect when Liverpool meet Chelsea at the business end of the Champions League. Nothing the two managers said yesterday could dissuade you from the feeling that tonight will be much the same; that these two teams approach one another like freight trains on the same line, rattling inexorably towards an almighty collision with the victor to be the one left with the least damage.
Rafael Benitez knows no other way; Avram Grant likes to think he does but would not risk it on a night like this. All that was missing was the animosity once shared by Benitez and Jose Mourinho as their relationship, once cordial, ultimately poisonous, enlivened matches that were so crucial and so forgettable. As Benitez and Grant shadow-boxed around anything that could be construed as an insult to the other it was a reminder that their clubs' six previous Champions League games were remembered as much for what was said as what was done on the pitch.
Liverpool, of course, would disagree because those four semi-final games represent an epoch in their history; while for Chelsea they were the first sign that owner Roman Abramovich's riches and Mourinho's cunning could not enable them to bulldoze their way to every trophy that caught their fancy. Benitez's team's victory over Chelsea in the 2005 semi-final was the first time the irresistible partnership of Abramovich and Mourinho was stopped in its tracks. Since then it has come off the tracks completely. But then Liverpool are not in line for a good corporate practice award any time soon.
Which team is in better health this morning? In the press room at Anfield there hangs a picture of the Liverpool team who won the 2005 European Cup celebrating with the trophy on the pitch in Istanbul. The now departed and unlamented defender Josemi is in paroxysms of joy, John Arne Riise is wearing a silly hat and Vladimir Smicer is peering over his shoulder. On another picture of the players parading the European Super Cup in Monaco, Djimi Traoré can be seen waving to the crowd. There is no photographic evidence of Igor Biscan but we know that the uncelebrated Croat was there.
In short, this was not a great Liverpool team even if their achievements will live on for ever. Benitez was asked to glance at the picture yesterday and even he could not suppress a smile at some of the characters who ended up with a European Cup winners' medal around their necks. "I have looked at this squad 20 times and thought 'oooff'," he said, the expression a polite way of expressing how limited some of those players were. "The current squad is much better. In football you cannot guarantee anything and the best team doesn't always win."
His team were certainly testament to that last old truth about football. In 2005 they had a team who were not even the best on Merseyside, let alone one that was thought capable of being the best in Europe. But Benitez's point that Liverpool have improved is fundamental to this game: in 2005 they were the shock winners; now a Liverpool victory over the next eight days would not raise half as much surprise. They have Fernando Torres and they have scored 26 goals in the Champions League already this season; when they won it in 2005 they managed 18 in the entire competition.
In fact, only three Liverpool players who started the first leg of the 2005 semi-final against Chelsea on 27 April – Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Xabi Alonso – will start tonight. For Chelsea the number is higher, seven players from that game – John Terry, Frank Lampard, Petr Cech, Didier Drogba, Ricardo Carvalho, Joe Cole and Claude Makelele – have a very good prospect of starting tonight. That does not necessarily demonstrate that Liverpool are stronger; just that they have changed radically from the days when Benitez had to make do with Biscan lumbering around in midfield.
As for the style, Benitez must have spoken for both managers when he agreed that for neutrals this tie was remembered for the occasion rather than the match and he was not personally about to change his approach tonight. "For a manager they [previous meetings] are good games. People always like a 5-5 draw. For a manager, if you concede five goals, something is wrong. In terms of the manager, they were good games. In terms of our supporters, they certainly enjoyed them."
While Benitez is the less naturally loquacious of the two managers who forced himself to be a little more talkative yesterday, Grant is the more gregarious who has of late adopted a less expansive approach. For all his reticence at Goodison Park on Thursday, he had ditched the monosyllabic approach by yesterday and talked enthusiastically about "creating history". At the same time he refused to discuss any existing history between the two teams because that would involve dredging up Mourinho, whose memory Grant has decided is best left alone.
Nevertheless, like Banquo's ghost, the former Chelsea manager keeps popping up at the most inopportune moments – precisely because of tonight's opposition and the recent history between the teams. Whatever Grant may hope, Mourinho will not simply be laid to rest even if Grant manages what the Portuguese never achieved and beats Liverpool in the Champions League. It is somewhat inevitable that Mourinho will march back into Stamford Bridge next season, probably in charge of Internazionale or Barcelona.
Grant has few dilemmas over selection tonight – Lampard and Michael Ballack will surely play despite the latter carrying an injury that would rule him out of a less crucial game. There is no Michael Essien, who is suspended, so the tough decisions are taken out of his hands. Benitez's major fear will be that Gerrard, Carragher or Javier Mascherano may pick up a yellow card and miss the second leg. After that it will be down to what Benitez called "the small details" which he has proved so good at in the past.
Yesterday, the Liverpool manager tried out an old Spanish proverb about poker, the telling of which was complicated, although the moral seemed to be that the game is great and winning is even better. It did not quite seem applicable to games between these two sides in particular. In the case of Liverpool and Chelsea in the Champions League the game is rarely great and winning really is everything.
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