England is guaranteed at least one representative in the Champions League final for the fourth successive season after another night on which the Barclays Premier League strengthened its claim to being the best in Europe.
For the third time in four seasons Liverpool will meet Chelsea in the semi-finals of the Continent’s premier club competition after Rafael BenÃtez’s team produced one of their finest performances of a turbulent campaign to come from behind to beat Arsenal 4-2 at a raucous Anfield for an outstanding 5-3 aggregate victory.
With Chelsea having overturned a 2-1 deficit to beat FenerbahÃ§e 3-2 on aggregate at Stamford Bridge, Avram Grant, the first-team coach, will try to succeed where JosÃ© Mourinho twice failed by overcoming a Liverpool team for whom Europe continues to provide a remarkable sanctuary.
But there was no doubting who provided the entertainment – and controversy. Having led 1-0 through Abou Diaby’s early strike only to trail 2-1, Arsenal appeared to have settled the tie on away goals with six minutes left when Theo Walcott raced almost the length of the pitch to set up Emmanuel Adebayor, who made amends for a bad miss moments earlier.
Within two minutes Liverpool, willed on by their magnificent support, had scored a disputed third when Ryan Babel, an inspired substitute, tumbled in the penalty area after tangling with Kolo TourÃ©. Steven Gerrard made no mistake from the spot before Babel added a fourth at the death, but ArsÃ¨ne Wenger was infuriated by the decision of Peter FrÃ¶jdfeldt, the referee, to award the penalty.
The Arsenal manager, who insisted that his team should have been awarded a penalty in the first leg, said: “The game was over – it was down to a dodgy decision and to a lack of concentration at 2-2. Over the two games it’s very difficult to swallow. All the big decisions went against us.”
BenÃtez, who praised “the belief and character of our players”, claimed not to have seen the penalty incident, but Gerrard was not about to moan. “It was probably one of the worst performances I have had in a Liverpool shirt, but I was confident I would score the penalty,” the Liverpool captain said.
“It was a great team performance and when we defend like that, other teams find it impossible. We’ve got some big league games coming up, but we’ll be ready for Chelsea.”
After Chelsea had overcome FenerbahÃ§e with goals from Michael Ballack and Frank Lampard, Grant said: “I’ve said all along we can do good things. We can win the competition. We’re very close.” But with Petr Cech out for two weeks, Grant’s joy was tempered by a hamstring injury to Carlo Cudicini, who was replaced by HilÃ¡rio, the third-choice goalkeeper, in the first half. “It doesn’t look so good,” Grant said of Cudicini’s injury.
It means that Rhys Taylor, the youth-team goalkeeper who has not made a first-team appearance and turned 18 on Monday, is likely to be involved in three matches in four days next week: on the bench against Wigan Athletic and Everton on Monday and Thursday and playing in the FA Youth Cup final, second leg away to Manchester City on Wednesday. “He’s a good goalkeeper,” Grant said.