It only seems like yesterday that we played Arsenal in the quarter finals but here we are on the day of our third Champions League semi against Chelsea and our fourth successive meeting in the competition.
Many will say that of this years semi finals ties ours is the least attractive. There are obvious grounds agreeing with this argument. When The Mancs last met Barcelona in the Champions League they drew 3-3. Us and Chelsea in six Champions League ties, four of them semi finals? Only three goals between us! A bore for the neutrals but both sets of fans won’t see it that way especially after last year at Anfeld, my stomach still churns when I think about it!
This year there is added intrigue as, for the first time, the second leg is at Stamford Bridge. Many will say that this will play into Chelsea’s hands especially as Rafa can’t do his usually trick of shutting up shop and then finishing off the opposition of at “fortress Anfield” someone’s else’s words not mine. This is simplistic; a closer look at our Champions League ties shows this not to be the case. We scored notable victories over Juventus and Bayer Leverkusen in similar circumstances and this year the games at Marseille and the San Siro proved that we can, if we need to, force the issue on the road.
Although I suspect Rafa won’t be too displeased with a 0-0 draw, the onus is on us to take the game to Chelsea and establish a lead for the second leg especially if the games turn out to be as tight as previous encounters. Chelsea won’t be as to be naive and laissez faire in defence as Arsenal and I doubt we’ll have the luxury of the opposition going down to ten men as we against Inter. Nonetheless they are there for the taking. Arguably this side doesn’t have the meanness that we were used to under Jose Mourinho. A look back over the results sees plenty of clean sheets but there are grounds for optimism, vis a vis goals, in the 4-4 scores they had with Villa and Spurs with a overall impression that, under Avram Grant, they are generally more “beatable”.
The key for us is Torres. Wow what an insight eh? But it has to be remembered that he didn’t play in our last two games against Chelsea, 0-0 at their place in the league and an under strength team’s 2-0 defeat in the Carling Cup. Torres will give Terry et all plenty to think about and he is arguably a different more confident, more settled player than the one who skated past Ben-Haim and outfoxed Cech to score in the league in August.
This year we have been spared the usually pre match verbal gymnastics of Jose Mourinho something that Rafa, with all the other off the field nonsense he has to contend with, will be pleased with. However did Rafa himself need to come out with the following?
“There’s no difference between this Chelsea and last year’s Chelsea…I think it’s more or less the same. I was watching the game at Everton on Thursday and they were playing more or less the same. As I’ve said before, the key to them was Abramovich. In the past I think they have built a fantastic team. You may miss José, yes, but not me. It could be they have less spirit than under Mourinho”
Words that, if anything, can only spur Chelsea. The closest we have got from Grant is him saying he would like Steven Gerrard in his side.
“If you can bring him to me, I will be happy”
Sounds like an Ancient Emperor summing one of his harem! Rating Gerrard in this way is not exactly a major revelation, is there a manager that would turn down his services? Most papers reported this in this way. However, perhaps due to his diherings over joining Chelsea a few seasons ago, The Times reported Gerrard as being a Chelsea transfer target if Frank Lampard picks up his barbecue and leaves this summer!
This is tame stuff though, is Gerrard more likely to join Chelsea than say two years ago? Much more controversial is the rumour that Tom “been there, got the fleece, got the mug” Hicks will be attending tonight. I don’t know if the man is extremely brave or extremely stupid (actually I think I do know) but if he does turn up let’s hope it doesn’t prove to be a distraction.
On the injury front it appears that Gerrard will have recovered from the neck injury that kept him out of the Fulham game. Although Peter Crouch scored over the weekend, and played against Arsenal, I would expect Rafa to revert the usual formation of Torres upfront Gerrard behind with Kuyt and Babel other side. There is a case for bringing Carragher back to centre back now that Finnan is fit but I wouldn’t be surprised if the defence replicates the Arsenal line up.
Prediction? I will be happy with a win of any sorts. However, what is going through my mind is this.
Fans and critics who follow and champion teams who aren’t in the semi finals may feel they have some moral right to be there and have, as a result, belittled our achievement in getting this far. However, regardless of what they think, I believe we are there on merit. Our record in this competition is one of the best, a position that many who support and manage clubs across Europe, let alone England, would kill for? Misguided, clueless, idiots may trample over our reputation in the name of self aggrandisement or financial greed but at the end of the day all that matters is when the whistle blows for the start of the game. Then, they cannot touch us and they never ever will.