Agger and Pepe give Chelsea the blues

Henry Winter in The Telegraph

Jose Mourinho has been moaning recently that Chelsea never receive penalties and his team were certainly put on the spot in this extraordinary European Cup semi-final last night. However, Liverpool prevailed on spot kicks as goalkeeper Pepe Reina saved from Arjen Robben and Geremi to reach the season’s May 23 climax. Dirk Kuyt’s successful effort ensures they face either Manchester United or AC Milan, who meet at San Siro tonight.

Daniel Agger, Liverpool’s Danish centre-half, had sent this mesmerising match into the additional period, striking elegantly in the first half on another wonderfully passionate Anfield occasion.

Roared on by a Kop at its raucous best, Liverpool had poured forward constantly, with Steven Gerrard particularly prominent in central midfield, but Chelsea‘s back-line were superb. John Terry epitomised the visitors’ rock-like determination in the teeth of the storm blowing in off the Mersey.

Liverpool had been the more adventurous side, with Kuyt denied by the bar and then a hugely questionable offside decision in the frenetic first half of extra time. The Kop seethed with dissent.

Even before Agger’s spectacular intervention after 21 minutes, a spiky local reception committee had been ready and waiting for Chelsea. Jamie Carragher’s oratory adorned the blood-red programme, whipping up the atmosphere even more. Liverpool’s wry centre-half also informed the “Echo” that “Mourinho is the funniest thing to come out of London since Del Boy and Rodney”.

Clearly, this was never going to be a jolly boys’ outing for Mourinho’s men, particularly not with Agger’s first-half goal negating Joe Cole’s first-leg strike, and with Gerrard deployed in his best position. Revelling in his central midfield station, the heartbeat behind all that was good about Liverpool last night, Gerrard swiftly set the mood and the tempo, letting fly after scarcely five minutes.

Inspired by Gerrard and Carragher, Liverpool tore into Chelsea, even the lightweight Bolo Zenden sliding in hard on Salomon Kalou. After the anaemic first meeting, this was far more full-blooded affair. The rugby great Martin Johnson looked on, marvelling at the commitment and high-speed collisions of Gerrard and Terry, Carragher and Didier Drogba.

Gerrard flattened Terry, a sight to send palpitations racing through England’s head coach, Steve McClaren, squeezed into a front-row perch in the press box. No space in the stands – and no quarter on the pitch. The temperature rose by the second, lifted by the fans’ exhortations.

Benitez’s side lacked for nothing in determination, as John Obi Mikel discovered when a rash decision to dawdle in possession was ended by an express train from Huyton called Gerrard. Liverpool’s captain was everywhere, soon winning a slightly soft free-kick when Joe Cole mistimed a challenge.

Seeing the tackle coming in, Gerrard played for the dead-ball which proved richly rewarding. Everyone expected Liverpool’s No 8 to lift the free-kick to the far post, looking for the towering Peter Crouch. Chelsea were certainly caught out as Gerrard rolled the ball to the edge of the area.

Here was a goal made in Melwood. Dirk Kuyt leant into John Obi Mikel, and Agger had clear water. Timing his run perfectly, meeting the ball sweetly, Agger sent it racing left-footed towards goal. The Danish centre-half cleverly imparted some fade on the ball, bending it past Kalou, past Michael Essien and past Petr Cech and into the net. A guttural roar ripped through Anfield.

Level on aggregate, Carragher and his footballing family had to beware the away goal. Dangers always lurks in this fine, hungry side of Mourinho’s and when Drogba stole a yard on Agger just after the half-hour mark, the Kop feared the worst. But Reina stood firm, and blocked Drogba’s hard shot. Relief rolled down from the terraces.

Back came Chelsea again, Drogba nodding on a Lampard corner and Essien flicking just wide. Then a Lampard corner swerved in and Reina, under real pressure, did brilliantly to punch clear.

A pulsating game paused for breath at half-time and then resumed in pell-mell fashion. Carragher was immense, denying Ashley Cole and Joe Cole in quick succession before the exceptional referee, Manuel Mejuto Gonzalez, blew for the end of 90 minutes.

Having given everything in normal time, Liverpool needed the 12th man of their support, and the inspiring words of Benitez, who walked amongst them, coaxing and cajoling, as they awaited the additional call to arms. Mourinho, too, was working his players, his words spreading belief and soothing tired legs.

Benitez’s entreaties initially seemed to have sparked the best response, with Riise unleashing a fearsome drive that Essien diverted for a corner. The game flowed hypnotically from end to end, with Agger throwing himself in the way of a Lampard thunderbolt.

Then it was Liverpool’s turn, Xabi Alonso hitting the ball so hard, that Cech spilled, and Kuyt clipped the loose ball in. As Liverpool celebrated, a flag on the far side lifted, indicating an offside by the Dutchman, a decision that enraged the Liverpool faithful.

Reds 1-0 Chelsea

Match details

Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Agger, Riise; Pennant (Alonso 78), Gerrard, Mascherano (Fowler 118), Zenden; Kuyt, Crouch (Bellamy 105).
Subs: Padelli (g), Arbeloa, Hyypia, Gonzalez.
Booked: Agger, Zenden.
Goal: Agger (22)
Chelsea (4-1-2-2-1): Cech; Ferreira, Essien, Terry, A Cole; Makelele (Geremi 118); Mikel, Lampard; J Cole (Robben 98), Kalou (Wright-Phillips 107); Drogba.
Subs: Cudicini (g), Boulahrouz, Bridge, Diarra.
Booked: A Cole.
Referee: M Mejuto Gonzalez (Spain).