Chelsea snatched a Champions League lifeline as Liverpool defender John Arne Riise’s last-gasp own goal allowed Avram Grant’s side to escape with a 1-1 draw from Tuesday’s semi-final first leg.
Liverpool had dominated after taking the lead through Dirk Kuyt just before half-time at Anfield but they failed to press home that advantage.
Petr Cech produced three superb saves to keep out Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard and Chelsea were able to make Rafa Benitez’s team pay in the final minute of stoppage time when Riise headed into his own net.
After suffering semi-final exits at Anfield in two of the last three seasons, the Blues will have left Merseyside feeling luck was on their side at last.
They lost to Luis Garcia’s ‘phantom goal’ in 2005 and were beaten on penalties last season.
Now, bolstered by a precious away goal their tepid display hardly deserved, Chelsea will believe they can avenge those bitter memories and finish the job at Stamford Bridge next Wednesday.
It was fitting that a tie with so much emnity propelling the participants should take place to the backdrop of the power struggle between Liverpool co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett.
Hicks had been advised to stay away for his own safety but defiantly took his place in the Anfield directors box.
The Kop made their feelings known with a series of anti-Hicks chants but were soon creating a wall of sound to intimidate Chelsea rather than the American tycoon.
The crowd’s frenzied passion didn’t inspire many fireworks on the pitch early on though. Goals are at a premium whenever these obdurate sides meet in Europe and it was a typically tenative start.
Liverpool threatened to break the stalemate first. Kuyt raced onto Xabi Alonso’s long pass, only for the Dutchman’s poor chest control to let Ricardo Carvalho and Cech clear the danger.
Chelsea’s Joe Cole had a sight of goal when Frank Lampard, back after spending time with his ill mother, picked out the England winger in the penalty area. Cole’s tame volley didn’t do justice to the sublime pass.
Didier Drogba appealed for a penalty when he tumbled under Jamie Carragher’s tackle. Carragher missed the ball but the challenge was just outside the area and referee Konrad Plautz waved away Drogba’s protests.
When Steven Gerrard’s defence-splitting pass put Fernando Torres clean through, Anfield rose in expectation of yet another decisive contribution from the Spaniard. For once Torres was frustrated as Cech made a superb stop.
Gradually Liverpool began to turn the screw and their relentless pressing played a key role in Kuyt’s 43rd minute opener after Chelsea were unhinged by Alonso’s quick free-kick.
Kuyt robbed Lampard on the edge of the area and Javier Mascherano took a swipe at the loose ball. The Argentine’s miscued effort should have been cleared but Claude Makelele rashly jumped in front of Ashley Cole and Kuyt was able to pounce, sliding his shot under Cech.
Liverpool were grateful for the gift but it was a shambolic goal to concede and summed up Chelsea’s confused display.
Grant’s inspirational qualities have been questioned constantly this season and now was the moment for the Israeli to lift his side. Yet they emerged after half-time just as flat as before.
Liverpool winger Ryan Babel caused chaos in the Chelsea defence as he surged past Paulo Ferreira and whipped in a low cross that led to a blocked Torres shot.
Babel was a constant danger and went close in the 60th minute with a dipping half-volley that flashed past Cech’s far post.
Chelsea finally stirred when Michael Ballack met Lampard’s free-kick with a glancing header which Jose Reina held well.
Florent Malouda had a much better chance moments later as he took Lampard’s pass and cut inside Alvaro Arbeloa. Just as Malouda was about to pull the trigger, Mascherano slid in with a crucial block.
Gerrard forced a brilliant one-handed tip-over from Cech in the closing minutes as Liverpool strove to take total control of the tie.
Cech then denied Torres with another fine stop at his near post and Chelsea took full advantage.
With virtually the last kick of the game, Salomon Kalou swung in a cross from the left and Riise, diving to head clear, succeeded only in diverting the ball into his own net.
Anfield fell silent as Liverpool were left to wonder if they would rue those missed chances.
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