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Saturday, April 26, 2008

PREMIER REPORT

Liverpool facing uphill climb against Chelsea


LONDON — If John Arne Riise believes there is a football god, the Liverpool substitute will have prayed to it every night since his stoppage time own-goal handed Chelsea a 1-1 draw in last Tuesday's Champions League semifinal, first leg.

Christopher Davies

Maybe even Riise doesn't know why he headed Salomon Kalou's left-wing cross as he did, giving a startled Pepe Reina no chance as the ball sped past him into the Liverpool net.

Maybe the Norwegian didn't trust his weaker right foot with the clearance and in the split-second he had to decide opted to head the ball clear — or in his own net as it turned out.

There was no hiding place for Riise, and you can bet that he has replayed the moment over in his mind during most of his waking hours since.

If Liverpool overcomes Chelsea at Stamford Bridge next Wednesday, Riise's gaffe will only be remembered as a classic own-goal. Should Chelsea advance, Riise will be remembered as the player whose header cost Liverpool its place in the final.

The omens for the Reds are not good. Liverpool has failed to score in eight games at the Bridge under Rafa Benitez, while Chelsea has not lost a Premier league match at its ground since a 2-1 defeat by Arsenal in February 2004.

As tends to be the case with the losing manager (the manner of the draw made it feel like a defeat for Liverpool), Benitez pointed the finger at referee Konrad Plautz: "It was a difficult match and I was very disappointed with the referee. He gave just one minute of injury time in the first period and four in the second. It was hard to understand."

No, it's easy. There were four substitutions in the second-half and guidelines are referees should add 30 seconds for such stoppages. And most neutrals thought the Austrian official had an outstanding game, getting the big (and small) decisions correct.

Benitez also knows that Arsenal was denied a nailed-on penalty in the quarterfinals, but managers tend only to talk about bad luck or perceived bad luck, never breaks that go in their favor.

Liverpool should have won the game at Anfield, but one man's misery is another man's joy.

Avram Grant, the Chelsea manager whom many of the club's fans would like to be the ex-Chelsea manager, could hardly believe his luck when Riise's header flashed past Reina.

Grant knew someone, somewhere had smiled on him and the Israeli is within one game of succeeding where Jose Mourinho failed and leading Chelsea to the Champions League final in Moscow — the most significant of venues when your boss is Roman Abramovich.

The Chelsea manager points to his record of five defeats in 49 matches in charge, that the team is in pole position in the Champions League semifinals, and victory over Manchester United on Saturday would open up the Premier League title race.

Grant's critics say that given the players at his disposal whoever was in charge would have a similar record.

His biggest "failure" is lacking the charisma of Mourinho, Arsene Wenger or Sir Alex Ferguson, while Chelsea (as it did under the Special One) is pragmatic rather than pulsating, winning ugly — which in fairness is probably better than losing pretty.

Chelsea displayed its usual resilience, but was over-reliant on Didier Drogba, and the fact that Petr Cech was man of the match tells its own story.

The return leg could also be decided by the unexpected, though a penalty shootout beckons again.

Riise's faux pas did not overshadow the efforts of a fellow Scandinavian. Earlier this season Danish defender Thomas Baelumr scored a seemingly impossible hat trick — three own goals against his club, Willem II.

* * * * *

CRISTIANO Ronaldo did a Riise in reverse, missing a second-minute penalty as Manchester United drew 0-0 in Barcelona.

What effect a successful penalty would have had on the game remains unknown . . . whether Barca — incredibly 10 of the squad has been through a divorce over the past year — would have folded or how United's confidence may have been lifted.

Ronaldo has scored 38 goals this season, so he will not have the finger pointed at him if United fails to reach the final in the way Riise will should Chelsea win through to Moscow.

United should have been awarded a second penalty when Rafael Marquez played Ronaldo rather than the ball. Though Ronaldo has cut out most of the diving that marked his early days in English football, he still goes down too easily.

Having fallen over too often, too theatrically, Ronaldo also has a habit of throwing his arms in the air and looking at the referee, his body language pleading for a penalty.

The awarding of a penalty by a referee is a gut reaction, an immediate feeling and the official is more likely to be affected negatively by the alleged victim dotting the Is and crossing the Ts.

If Ronaldo, or any player, just goes over without exaggeration, no arms in the air, no "please sir, look at the referee . . . he is more likely to see the decision go in his favor."

Drogba and Liverpool's Steven Gerrard are two other players who need stabilizers in the penalty area. Leave it to the referee, don't try to force his hand.

Ronaldo's rolling over apart, United was poor at the Nou Camp. Except for the excellent Paul Scholes, rarely can the Reds have given the ball away so cheaply and regularly.

Sir Alex Ferguson's tactics of using Ronaldo as a central striker supported (or not most of the time) by Wayne Rooney and Park Ji Sung did not work.

The service to the front men was poor going on non-existent, and while United's performance could be called solid and professional, impressive it was not.

In contrast, Barca, so disappointing in La Liga, was inventive and incisive with Deco, Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Samuel Eto — far livelier than the visiting forwards.

The return match at Old Trafford promises to be a memorable European night given what is at stake, and though United wins most of its home games, Barca showed enough in the first match to suggest a surprise could be in the cards.

Before the return with Barca, United travels to Stamford Bridge for a possible Champions League final dress rehearsal. United needs two victories to retain its Premier League crown, and team selection by both managers with Europe in mind will be crucial.

Christopher Davies covers the Premier League for the London Daily Telegraph.


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