EPIC. Epic because it was three and half hours long. Epic because it was a grand, gripping spectacle; a sporting battle of the highest order. Epic because every ounce of effort from every character involved was expended into emerging from the piece victorious; as the hero.
That hero, for Chelsea, and as far as the rest of the country was concerned, was wearing blue: Branislav Ivanovic for his extra-time winner, yes, but more Thibaut Courtois for his tremendous saves that thwarted Liverpool in both legs. The best team in the land right now needed an inspired display from the man between the sticks to win it. Think about that.
For many it simply went according to the script. But that ignores a large part of the story. Sometimes so much of the narrative seems written in advance — even more so in a two-legged semi-final. This was no different. Would Liverpool be made to pay for not making more of their domination at Anfield? Would the Jordan Henderson v Costa tunnel confrontation affect matters? How would the respective managers react to that breathtaking — and draining — first leg? And who had the options to change it most?
With the questions came the facts. Chelsea’s have a better squad, an enviable home record and a recent track record of winning silverware. The bookies had Liverpool at 11-2 to win the League Cup after the first leg. Like it or not, that said a lot.
Defeat is tough to stomach, particularly with Wembley in spitting distance, but is no disgrace after that performance. There’s nothing to celebrate but there are heroes in red over the two legs to quietly toast.
Jordan Henderson followed up his magnificent unmoved stare, an invite to take it off the pitch and a tunnel confrontation with Diego Costa with more fight — this time on the pitch. His effort and endeavour for 120 minutes offers more answers to the doubters who question his quality to wear the armband on a permanent basis when Steven Gerrard crosses the pond in the summer.
His midfield mate Lucas shone again too, a costly mistake at the end — consummating the one from Mario Balotelli — and dicing with disciplinary disaster aside. His is another story simmering on the back burner; the man desperate for honours; the man who missed out the last time medals were handed out in the same competition. This wasn’t the ending he wanted but this shouldn’t be the end.
The Brazilian, so significant to the rebirth of a season headed for the doldrums, was there to clean up when Costa threatened early on, ironically, and accidentally, with his hand. Then Martin Skrtel — the eternally up and down Martin Skrtel — was up and at ’em, perhaps too much in the case of his penalty box challenge, again on Costa. Two controversial decisions favouring the away side? These things even themselves out, they always say. Costa handling insde the box and Thibaut Courtois handling out at Anfield? ‘They’ were right for once. A yellow card for simulation though, Michael Oliver? Brilliant.
The team selections too, told a story. Liverpool confident enough to go to the home of the league leaders sticking with the three at the back; Chelsea worried enough to cater for Raheem Sterling’s pace by dropping Gary Cahill for Kurt Zouma and determined enough to go on the attack by swapping Mikel for Oscar.
Costa displayed the grim side of his game with which we have become so accustomed, sneakily treading on a floored Emre Can and leaving studs in on Skrtel to add to his stamp collection. Ugly and unnecessary. Much like the ‘always the victim…’ and ‘murderers’ songs aired by the home supporters.
Chelsea had more of the ball in the early stages, but, crucially, there were no signs of Liverpool worry . Instead, there was everything you would want to see in a game of this magnitude. Fight and fervour; the intensity of the play dialled back to 10 after a slow burner against Bolton. Since August people have asked where Steve Peters is this season. I’m sure he’d be the first to say that mentally Liverpool were prepared for this.
All night it looked like this would be a game decided by who landed the first punch and it was Liverpool who found their range first.
Zouma made a mistake that looked like Sterling would get in, but the 20-year-old defender’s blundering header also showed just why he was in the side in the first place — his recovery pace allowing him to snap back at Sterling as the No.31 readied himself to let fly.
Then — as those Chelsea wits trotted out “he lost you the league” — Gerrard displayed the vision that will never desert his aging legs, threading an incisive ball to Alberto Moreno, who later gloriously out-muscled Ivanovic, and his shot called Courtois’s 6ft 6ins frame into duty to block.
The again bright and brilliant Philippe Coutinho also tried his luck, opting for the Raheem Sterling route to goal — straight through the middle — only to see the big Belgian in the Chelsea goal blocking the way once again.
Henderson also had an effort blocked while Chelsea struggled, missing from distance, putting free kicks wide and failing to add to the penalty scored in the first leg as an effort on target in the tie until the hour mark.
All that said, there were hints at nerves among Liverpool’s play — Markovic needlessly and naively giving it away, Sakho playing Lucas into trouble. For once it wasn’t Simon Mignolet who looked like he had a mistake in him (he deserves credit for his save from a deflected Costa shot and a tackle on the same player). The same couldn’t be said for the team in general though — and it turned out the manager had one in him, too.
Sakho for Glen Johnson felt like a big loss given the Frenchman’s recent form, and Chelsea came into the game soon after. But to compound one disruption to the Liverpool flow with another with the Balotelli substitution with 20 to go felt like madness and proved to be just that.
Ok, Liverpool needed a goal. But the switch was accompanied with Henderson moving right and Gerrard dropping deeper. It all looked as bizarre as the sight of Ivanovic shaking hands with the ref when he received a yellow or Mourinho when he was caught on camera berating the nervous-looking official in the bowels of Stamford Bridge at half time.
Perhaps Rodgers got caught up in dreamworld narratives — Balotelli sticking two fingers up to his old boss with the winner at Chelsea sounds great, doesn’t it?
Instead, the reality was he was to Liverpool’s momentum what a £50m move to Chelsea was to Fernando Torres’s strike rate. We saw Gerrard frustrated with his movement, or lack of. We saw him generally at odds with everything else that was going on around him. We saw him blam it over the bar in extra time. We saw nothing we didn’t know already: Balotelli doesn’t suit the way Liverpool play.
At the wrong end of the pitch he was twice involved in the build up to Chelsea’s winner, too. And that ball into the middle when Courtois had strayed from his line….
But let’s leave it there.
The goal didn’t change the task in hand — a Liverpool goal was needed before the header; a Liverpool goal was needed after. But once ball hit net Liverpool legs looked heavier. Henderson should have done better coming on to Sterling’s cross but there was very little else to shout about.
With 15 minutes left, Rickie Lambert came on for Moreno. Plans out the window, tactical flip books tucked quietly under seats. A good old-fashioned ‘let’s just go for it, lads’.
Sadly, by that time, Liverpool looked spent. Needless scraps, an increasing yellow card count — inevitability was knocking. Perhaps just one more chance? The clocked ticked into minute 120 and Lambert blammed it over the bar. Not what was needed. Liverpool paying the price for being clinical at the top end of the pitch. The same old story.
Other stories are already half written. But you can always change the ending. If Liverpool regularly reproduce the performances at Anfield and Stamford Bridge in this tie between now and the end of the season, a much sweeter one than tonight’s could soon be on the horizon.
For now though, as far as the League Cup is concerned, this is the end.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda