Chelsea’s Drogba sets up United showdown

Didier Drogba sent Chelsea to their first Champions League final and got revenge on Rafa Benitez as his double strike clinched a 3-2 win against Liverpool in Wednesday’s semifinal second leg.

Drogba had given Chelsea the lead in the first half at Stamford Bridge before Fernando Torres sent the tie into extra-time.

That set the scene for Frank Lampard to cap an emotional return as the midfielder restored Chelsea’s lead with a penalty in his first appearance since the death of his mother.

With Liverpool on the ropes, Drogba delivered the killer blow and Ryan Babel’s late strike couldn’t stop Chelsea sealing a 4-3 aggregate triumph.

Drogba’s heroics earned a May 21 showdown with Manchester United in Moscow and left Benitez choking on his words after the Liverpool manager had accused the Ivorian of diving in the build-up.

”I am really pleased for the club,” said Drogba. ”We have been trying to make the final for several years.

”What we have achieved today [Wednesday] is a great thing for the club and the fans.

”Rafael Benitez is a fantastic coach but I was a little disappointed about his comments. The remarks were very personal and football is not all about these critics. I am doing everything to promote English football.”

Chelsea coach Avram Grant said there was no point in comparing himself to his predecessor Jose Mourinho, who was known as the Special One, but who never guided the Blues to the Champions League final, though he won the trophy with Porto in 2004.

”There’s only one Special One, of course,” said Grant. ”Liverpool are a fantastic team and you have to be a clever side against them.

”I was a little bit embarrassed about my celebration at the end [he went down on his knees in exultation].

”It was a little bit about my thinking of my grandfather, who died in the Holocaust, and my father, who is 80.

”We created history tonight [Wednesday] and I have done it my way.”

After losing at this stage three times in the last four years, including two agonising defeats to Liverpool, Grant’s side can finally celebrate their arrival in the European game’s showpiece.

They could yet go into the Champions League’s first all-English final as kings of English football as well. It is a remarkable turnaround for a team written off when Grant replaced Mourinho in September.

Benitez’s withering assessment of Drogba’s theatrics had drawn an angry response from the player and he had the chance to prove his point on the pitch.

It wasn’t long before Drogba tried his luck with a long-range effort that brought a sprawling save from Jose Reina.

There was an extra menace about Drogba’s every movement and Lampard’s pass sent him away down the left, only for his scuffed shot to trickle wide.

Wave upon wave of blue-shirted attack crashed down on the Liverpool defence and threatened to sweep Benitez’s team aside. Michael Essien was next to test Reina with a low shot that skidded awkwardly off the rain-soaked pitch.

Liverpool were creaking and the sheer weight of Chelsea’s pressure finally told in the 33rd minute. Inevitably, it was Drogba who kicked down the door.

Alvaro Arbeloa failed to cut out Lampard’s pass and Salomon Kalou pounced. When Kalou’s curling strike forced Reina to parry, John Arne Riise was slow to react and Drogba took full advantage. He drove low under Reina before sprinting off to dive full-length towards the crowd.

There was no mistaking the dig at Benitez but, in case he hadn’t got the message, Drogba raced to celebrate in front of the Liverpool manager before being mobbed by his teammates.

A second goal for the hosts would have made Liverpool’s task almost impossible and Michael Ballack nearly supplied it before half-time with a curling free-kick that flashed just wide.

But the Reds emerged with renewed focus after the break. They threatened when Dirk Kuyt met Steven Gerrard’s header with a deft flick, but goalkeeper Petr Cech was able to save with his feet.

With the tie in their control, Chelsea suddenly seemed content to sit back and, not for the first time, that caution proved their undoing.

In the 64th minute Yossi Benayoun cut in from the left and slipped a pass to Torres just inside the penalty area. The Spain striker was surrounded by defenders but he cleverly worked space to fire low past Cech for Liverpool’s first goal in nine visits to the Bridge.

After dominating for so long Chelsea were stunned. Liverpool were just grateful for Torres’s moment of inspiration and, with both sides increasingly weary, the tie drifted into extra-time.

Grant’s side thought they had taken the lead in the first period when Essien smashed home from the edge of the area, but his strike was disallowed for offside.

Chelsea didn’t have to wait long to go back in front. Sami Hyypia’s lunge on Ballack in the 98th minute was mistimed and Italian referee Roberto Rosetti had no hesitation in giving the penalty.

Ballack had scored the spot-kick winner against Manchester United on Saturday. This time it was Lampard who stepped up and sent Reina the wrong way from the spot before pointing to the black armband he was wearing in memory of his mother and raising his fingers to the heavens.

Liverpool were on the ropes and Drogba delivered the killer blow in the 105th minute with a close-range finish from Nicolas Anelka’s cross.

The drama still wasn’t over as Babel’s long-range shot squirmed past Cech in the 117th minute, but Chelsea were soon celebrating semifinal success. — AFP



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Steve Griffiths
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