Chelsea turned in a performance of the highest quality at Anfield to take complete control of their Champions League tie with Liverpool.
It had all started so well for the Reds when Fernando Torres swept them into a sixth minute lead, but the visitors soon got themselves together and squandered two great opportunities to level through Didier Drogba.
The tie was then turned on its head when Branislav Ivanovic scored two headers either side of half-time, before Drogba, not to be denied, added a third with Liverpool looking stunned.
Chelsea are now in complete control of the tie – Liverpool will have to score at least three times at Stamford Bridge in next week’s second leg if they are to stand any chance of reaching the last four.
Javier Mascherano was suspended for Liverpool; meaning Lucas Leiva came into the starting XI. Otherwise there was no major selection news for the Reds.
Chelsea, though, sprung a few surprises. Nicolas Anelka was left on the bench alongside the likes of Ricardo Carvalho, Deco and John Obi Mikel. Florent Malouda was given a start, while Ivanovic played at right-back.
Chelsea’s coach, Guus Hiddink, had said prior to the game that his side would attack from the off, but it was the home side who came racing out of the traps. In just the third minute, a powerful Dirk Kuyt effort deflected off Ivanovic and just over the crossbar after the Blues failed to clear a corner
That was the warning, because three minutes later Rafael Benitez’s side were in front. After the visitors made a hash of clearing a long ball from defence, Kuyt cleverly sent Alvaro Arbeloa free on the right. The full-back squared the ball to the onrushing Torres, who confidently swept his shot past Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech from 15 yards.
Incredibly, though, the Blues had a golden opportunity to level less than a minute later. Fabio Aurelio carelessly lost possession inside his own half to Salomon Kalou, who sent Drogba clean through on goal. However, the striker shot straight at Pepe Reina, wasting a glorious chance to equalise straight away.
The visitors next threatened in the 23rd minute when Kalou and Drogba worked passes on the flank to Malouda, who shot wide of the far post. At the other end, it was Frank Lampard’s turn to lose the ball in his own half - Torres pouncing before shooting just over from the edge of the penalty area.
On the half hour mark, Drogba had another clear opening on goal. He managed to lose Jamie Carragher and pick up Michael Ballack’s pass into the box, but could only blaze a left-footed effort over the bar from close-range, leaving Hiddink bewildered on the touchline.
But relief was only a few minutes away. As the half neared its conclusion, Lampard saw a long-range effort deflected wide. From the resulting corner, taken by Malouda, Chelsea had a deserved equaliser. The Frenchman floated in a delivery to the edge of the six-yard box and Ivanovic headed home after avoiding detection from Liverpool’s zonal marking system.
Moments later, the Reds almost got themselves back in front with Chelsea still stretched. Kuyt found his way past Terry before shooting straight at Cech from a difficult angle.
After the break, Drogba had his third gilt-edged opportunity of the match after Aurelio lost possession and Lampard sent him clear. The Ivorian fared better this time, riding the challenge of Martin Skrtel and slipping his shot past Reina, but Jamie Carragher crucially got back onto the goal-line to hook the ball to safety.
Gerrard and Torres then combined well at the other end - the Spaniard eventually shooting over after being put under pressure from the Blues’ defence as the game’s end-to-end nature continued.
On 62 minutes, in a near carbon copy of the first goal, Chelsea scored again through Ivanovic – the Serbian grabbing his second goal of the match. This time it was Lampard’s corner that found defender in space and he guided another header past the helpless Reina.
Just as you thought it couldn’t get any better for the visitors, they were in dreamland five minutes later. Ballack broke from midfield and fed Malouda down the left. The winger then sent in a glorious inviting cross to which Drogba, who had been enduring a difficult night, showed huge desire to beat Aurelio and Carragher to and power home from close-range.
Liverpool huffed and puffed in the final 20 minutes as they attempted to get back into the tie, but other than a Xabi Alonso shot from distance that was tipped over by Cech in the third minute of stoppage time, they struggled to threaten and looked out of ideas going forward.
Chris Myson, Goal.com