Maxi Rodriguez (right) and teammates celebrate Liverpool’s opening goal on Tuesday against Chelsea. (Photo Credit: Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
Liverpool piled more misery on Andre Villas-Boas and Chelsea Tuesday night with a storming 2-0 win, advancing to the semifinals of the Carling Cup. The struggling Chelsea manager isn’t the only one worried for his job tonight as Cardiff City eliminated Blackburn by the same scoreline, making one wonder if Steve Kean can survive the evening as their coach.
And, in North London, Arsenal’s youth team played a surprisingly solid game against a half-strength Manchester City side that needed help from Sergio “Kun” Aguero to eke out a late 1-0 win. City had come into the match heavily favored but found themselves bamboozled for long spells by a pressing, harassing Arsenal side powered by an unlikely hero: midfielder Emmanuel Frimpong.
Manchester United look to round out the semifinal field tomorrow against second-division side Crystal Palace. (2:45 p.m. ET, FOX Soccer Plus)
At the Bridge tonight, Chelsea looked to be a team in free-fall. Liverpool have now beaten them twice in a row and beaten them well to boot. The Blues seem to have no answer for the harrying play of Craig Bellamy — brilliant in both games and the creator of both goals tonight — and the packed midfield that Kenny Dalglish deploys against them. Even a saved penalty, poorly taken by Andy Carroll after Alex handled the ball to deny him a chance, couldn’t stop the Reds.
The malaise around this Chelsea team is now so deep that what just a month ago looked like a capable if aging side now seems to be a team that needs a drastic overhaul. At every position, Chelsea have holes, and in every recent game, they look mentally unprepared. From the opening whistle, Liverpool were slicker, playing with a confidence that seems to elude what once was a London team threatening for the title.
Some of the problems are obvious. Fernando Torres was invisible again tonight and seems destined for the scrap heap despite the near $80 million fee the Blues paid for him last winter. With each match, he looks more sullen and hangdog and less like the vastly influential player he once was. Even the late introduction of Juan Mata, ostensibly to set the Spaniard up, did little other than give Torres a momentary lift — which resulted in a header straight at his old teammate, Pepe Reina.
More troubling, perhaps, is the lack of progress shown by some of Chelsea’s younger players. David Luiz was rightly booked for a dive in the opening minutes when he left his leg in against Sebastian Coates. He then took a massive risk by shoving Carroll in the box moments later. Only charity shown by Phil Dowd allowed the reckless Brazilian to remain on the field.
Chelsea would go on to collect five cautions on the night, indicative of their slackness and sloppiness in tackles. Most of the cards were greeted with a weary resignation.
Bellamy, who did not play on the weekend after the suicide death of his national manager Gary Speed, rebounded with a brilliant night, torching the Blues down the far sideline and setting up the winner with a perfect cross that beat `keeper Ross Turnbull to find Maxi. Five minutes later, Bellamy’s well-weighted cross gave Martin Kelly his first goal. It was fitting that when he was removed, he received applause and the chant of “Gary Speed” from the crowd.
Villas-Boas claims he has the support of his owner, the unpredictable — if not irrational — Roman Abramovich. We’ll see.
Speaking of support, in a rational world Steve Kean would have managed his last game for Blackburn tonight after a wretched overall performance and truly horrific goalkeeping by second-string Mark Bunn allowed second-division Cardiff to snatch a major win and reach the semis for the first time since 1966. But these are not rational times in Lancashire, where two Indian brothers seem determined to enjoy the prestige of owning a team while riding it into the ground.
The vitriol directed at Kean isn’t entirely fair. Yes, he’s a terrible manager. But what can he do with an ownership given to making fantastic promises and failing to deliver? He seems overwhelmed, and the sense one gets is that the Rovers’ squad are now simply playing for themselves as much as possible while avoiding serious injury.
Nonetheless, Blackburn’s defense was so immobile on the night that it could have been replaced by Jersey barriers to the same effect. Cardiff’s Kenny Miller and Peter Whittingham terrorized what passed for a midfield all night, with the Scottish international deserving at least one more goal than he scored. And up top? David Goodwillie had the only go at net for Rovers in the second half. You read that right: One shot on goal.
Finally at the Emirates, Arsene Wenger decided that discretion was the better part of valor. Instead of going for it against a stocked Cityside, he gave key players like Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott the night off, throwing the likes of Ignasi Miquel and Francis Coquelin on to face, oh, Kun Aguero and Edin Dzeko.
Lambs to the slaughter? Not exactly.
Led by a brilliant game from Frimpong in the center of the midfield, Arsenal blunted City for a solid 80 minutes and might have denied the favorites their slot. Playing a harassing, throttling style that didn’t allow former Gunner Samir Nasri any time on the ball, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was able to force backup City `keeper Costel Pantilimon into some heroic stops with excellent wide play.
This was a subdued City for certain, probably tired from their exertions in Naples and at Anfield, but nonetheless, for quite some time you felt that Wenger’s youngsters had the better of matters. Like it or not, Arsenal created the best chances, played the slicker passes and were more defensively organized than they had any right to be.
When Dzeko set up the break for the goal, it was only grudgingly deserved. In the end, one might argue that talent — or money — won the day. But despite the fact that another piece of silver slipped away from the Gunners’ grasp, it’s hard not to take away the idea that real Arsenal promise was shown, directly in the face of what many presume is an unstoppable wave, no less.