LONDON – By the end, Liverpool were left to reflect on the moment in the second half when Steven Gerrard had the chance to win the match, in front of the Kop, where a banner had been raised before kickoff proclaiming him as â€œThe best there is, the best there was, and the best there will ever beâ€. Gerrard had been mercilessly taunted again by Chelseaâ€™s supporters and he had played as if determined to turn the volume down. This was his best opportunity, 12 yards out, but his shot hit a post and the moment was gone.
There were other chances for Liverpool to win it, on a night when Chelsea were indebted to Thibaut Courtoisâ€™ goalkeeping, and the home side had enough momentum after Raheem Sterlingâ€™s equaliser to justify the view of Brendan Rodgers that they ought to be taking a first-leg lead into the return game at Stamford Bridge next week.
Gerrard was among a number of excellent performers and Chelsea had to absorb some concerted pressure before JosÃ© Mourinho could reflect on a reasonably satisfying nightâ€™s work. His team will begin the second leg as marginal favourites, largely because of Eden Hazardâ€™s 18th-minute penalty, but it might just be that Rodgersâ€™ players reminded themselves of something with this performance.
They showed they could take on the best team in the country and cause them prolonged problems and if nothing else that is a start, bearing in mind the way the two sides have gone in different directions since the end of last season. Mourinho described it afterwards as a fair result and Rodgers smiled knowingly at that one. â€œItâ€™s fair when you should lose,â€ he pointed out.
Liverpool were sharp in possession, passing the ball crisply and displaying little of the self-doubt that was evident here earlier in the season, when Chelsea won so convincingly the 2-1 scoreline felt like a deception. This time Chelsea moved the ball in a way that had Mourinho complaining afterwards about an unusual level of carelessness, particularly when they had the chance to break and get behind the Liverpool defence. â€œWe missed so many passes,â€ he said. â€œRecover the ball, lose the ball; recover the ball, lose the ball.â€
Rodgers was also slightly exasperated, arguing that Liverpool should have had a penalty at the end of the first half when Diego Costa handled the ball. The referee, Martin Atkinson, did not have a good vantage point and the Liverpool manager was aggrieved, too, that Courtois was not penalised after sliding out to gather the ball, at 1-1, only for his momentum to take him outside the box.
The worrying part for Liverpool is that there is a recurring theme about the way their shortcomings in defence tend to undermine the entire team. At one stage in the first half the ball was hooked clear from inside Chelseaâ€™s penalty area and from nothing more refined than a long punt forward there were suddenly two visiting players bearing down on one defender. Rodgersâ€™ team are still getting used to a new system of three central defenders and as long as it remains a work in progress, their opponents will always be encouraged.
The penalty was the case in point. Emre Can was caught out by Cesc FÃ bregasâ€™s run to the byline and clipped Hazard in a clumsy attempt to rectify the situation. Hazard calmly beat Simon Mignolet from the spot and, after that, Chelsea seemed content to sit on their lead when it might have worked in their favour to pose more questions of Liverpoolâ€™s defence and examine the current state of Mignoletâ€™s goalkeeping.
Costa spent a lot of the night trying to get under the skin of anyone in a red shirt rather than managing anything more constructive. In the first half he caught Can in the face with a hand. Later there was a stand-off with Jordan Henderson, followed by the Chelsea striker apparently trying to tread on his opponentâ€™s foot. There is always a bit of needle when these teams meet and though Costa was responsible for much of it, there was also a contemptible piece of play-acting from Lazar Markovic to make out Filipe LuÃs had struck him in the face.
It suited Chelsea better for the game to become fractured and niggly and early in the second half Liverpool looked as though they had lost some of their momentum. Yet it was a brilliant piece of individual play from Sterling for his goal and Rodgers talked afterwards about his player being rejuvenated after a recent break.
Sterling initially had his back to goal when he collected Hendersonâ€™s pass, 40 yards from goal, but his change of direction and burst of acceleration opened up the entire Chelsea defence. Sterling was past Nemanja Matic first then picked up speed as he went to the left of Gary Cahill and, running at full pelt, found the bottom corner with a left-foot shot to leave this semi-final delicately poised. – The Guardian