Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Reds rue missed chances as Chelsea reach final

Liverpool were left disappointed after an entertaining evening of football packed with controversial incidents and talking points ended with them cruelly exiting the League Cup at the semi-final stage.

The Reds managed to take the Blues to extra time after it somehow ended goalless after 90 minutes at Stamford Bridge. However, the away goal they required during the additional half an hour proved frustratingly elusive, and Branislav Ivanovic headed home the winner on the night, although it mattered very little as Mourinho’s men would have reached the final anyway on away goals.

Brendan Rodgers stuck with the same team that performed so well in the first leg at Anfield a week earlier, with the main team news being the absence of Daniel Sturridge from the squad despite hopes that we might see the England striker sitting on the substitutes’ bench. Jose Mourinho, meanwhile, made nine changes to the team that suffered what the Portuguese described as a ‘disgraceful’ giant killing at the hands of Bradford City in the FA Cup fourth round on Saturday.

The end-to-end match was played at a frenetic pace and, with tensions running high, the players’ passions frequently boiled over. Diego ‘the Elephant Man’ Costa was, predictably, at the heart of the controversy once again, with the first of two stamps from the Spanish striker coming after just 12 minutes when he quite clearly and deliberately stamped Emre Can on the ankle while getting back to his feet from a challenge.

Stamp number one...
Referee Michael Oliver scandalously didn’t even book the thuggish striker, who then complained vociferously after being refused a penalty following a clumsy challenge in the area by Skrtel. Admittedly, it probably should have been a spot kick, but Costa shouldn’t have even been on the pitch by that point.

Putting the handbags to one side, Chelsea had the better of the game during the first 45 minutes, but Liverpool crafted far more clear-cut goalscoring opportunities and should have entered the interval in the lead.

Philippe Coutinho was the Reds’ creative heart, taking four Chelsea defenders out of the game with a wonderful run which opened up the goal for him on the half hour mark. Unfortunately, Courtois stuck out a leg to make a fine save at the critical moment. Moments before, Courtois had also denied Moreno after Gerrard’s incisive pass had put the Spaniard in on goal, while Kurt Zouma was also called upon to make an outstanding tackle to stop Sterling after he’d sped into the Chelsea box.

The closest Chelsea came to breaking the deadlock was a 25-yard free kick that Oscar steered wide of goal five minutes before the break. Apart from that, the hosts produced very little, as borne out by the statistics. During the first half, the Blues had four shots to the Reds’ six, and none of their efforts were on target.

After the break, though, Chelsea stepped up a gear or two, although some things never change, as Costa stamped on another Liverpool player, this time landing his boot on Martin Skrtel’s shin ten minutes after the restart. Remarkably, he got away scot free once again, avoiding even a yellow card.

...stamp number two. Six more and Costa will get a free coffee!
As the Blues pressed harder and gained greater inroads into Liverpool’s defence during the second half, Simon Mignolet stood up to the plate and produced a couple of world class saves that perhaps point to the much maligned Belgian keeper turning a corner.

First, he excellently kept out Costa’s deflected strike with his legs. Then, he made a tackle that Jamie Carragher would have been proud of to stop Costa in his tracks after he’d inadvertently been put in on goal by Henderson’s sliding clearance.

It was sensational stuff from Mignolet, who put in a fantastic performance overall and deserves plenty of praise. If he can keep this form up, he’ll make a lot of Liverpool fans eat their words.

A tackle Carragher would be proud of from Mignolet
In contrast, Mario Balotelli did nothing to prove his detractors wrong last night. Brought on for Markovic with 20 minutes remaining, he produced little of note and was to blame for Ivanovic’s goal. His body language was also awful, heading straight down the tunnel upon the final whistle. Adam Lallana surely should have been introduced instead of the lazy and ineffective Italian.

Gerrard and Sterling shot into the stands; while Costa saw a strike blocked by Johnson in the closing stages as the 90 minutes ended with neither side able to add goals to a game that otherwise had everything. Heading into half an hour of extra time, Liverpool knew that they needed to score as away goals now came into play.

When Branislav Ivanovic lost Balotelli and rose highest to head home Willian’s free kick three minutes into extra time, it didn’t really change a great deal. Liverpool still needed to score, although their reward would now be a penalty shootout rather than outright victory.

Ivanovic's goal made little difference in the grand scheme of things
Unfortunately, though, the goal seemed to deflate the tired Merseysiders, who never really put their hosts under a sustained spell of pressure during extra time and only managed to produce one gilt-edged opportunity to equalise.

On 100 minutes, Sterling cleverly worked his way down the left wing and sent a brilliant cross into the box for Jordan Henderson, who somehow directed his header wide from close range when he just had to score. Sterling subsequently sent a tame shot rolling wide and Lambert blazed over the bar, but Liverpool seemed a defeated side in the second half of extra time, while Chelsea are the experts at closing out matches, and that’s exactly what they did on this occasion as well.

Although Kopites can have legitimate complaints about the stamp-happy Costa remaining on the pitch, at the end of the day Liverpool have nobody to blame for failing to reach the League Cup final but themselves. They were the better team over the two legs and Courtois’ stunning form is the main reason Chelsea are heading to Wembley and not the Reds, but you simply cannot afford to miss that many chances against the best team in the country.

Until they get a striker who can take these chances, Liverpool are going to struggle when it matters most.


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