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Why Liverpool and Chelsea ended up in one of English football's most heated rivalries

Ryan Sidle

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Why Liverpool and Chelsea ended up in one of English football's most heated rivalries

It feels wrong that Liverpool vs Chelsea on Saturday will be a battle between ninth and 10th in the Premier League, especially considering how their rivalry came to be.

They may be two of the ‘Big Six’ in the Premier League but right now, the two sides, who have both been Champions League winners in the past four years, are floundering behind Brighton, Brentford and Fulham.

It has not always been like this however and, between October 2004 and 2009, they faced off a mammoth 24 times, often in some of the game's most high-profile encounters.

In 2003, Chelsea were on the verge of financial ruin and needed to beat Liverpool on the final day of the season to secure a top four place and earn Champions League football to save themselves.

Jesper Gronkjaer scored the only goal of the game, prompting Roman Abramovich to buy the Blues, rather than look elsewhere, with the Reds own owners responding by trying to sell their club to someone who could arm them with the funds to compete with the Russian's billions.

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However, it was the respective arrivals of Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez at both clubs in June 2004 that really kickstarted the rivalry.

Mourinho openly discussed a move to bring Liverpool hero Steven Gerrard to Stamford Bridge, which didn’t go down well on Merseyside.

It was first blood to the ‘Special One’s’ team when they won the Carling Cup final between the two teams, with Gerrard scoring an own-goal to take the game to extra time that would prove significant.

Mourinho shushed Liverpool fans following the win to enrage them, but the next time the sides met he had much more to say.

They faced off in the Champions League semi-final, with Liverpool coming out on top thanks to Luis Garcia’s infamous ‘ghost goal'.

The Chelsea boss was adamant the ball hadn’t crossed the line when the referee allowed the only goal of the two legs to stand.

Mourinho was furious with the decision to award a goal, saying after the match: “You can say the linesman's scored. It was a goal coming from the moon or from the Anfield Road stands.

“The best team lost and didn't deserve to lose. After they scored only one team played, the other one just defended for the whole game.”

Garcia celebrates his 'ghost goal' whilst Chelsea players protest. Image: Alamy
Garcia celebrates his 'ghost goal' whilst Chelsea players protest. Image: Alamy

Liverpool went on to win the Champions League and Chelsea the league, and the two foes were to meet another five times the following season.

That wasn’t before Gerrard handed in a transfer request at Anfield, however, before changing his mind late on when a move to west London had appeared a certainty.

Benitez’s side had actually finished fifth in the league and UEFA didn’t have rules in place at the time for a side being crowned European champions but not qualifying through the league.

Liverpool were granted a special exemption as a result, meaning they were handed the chance to go through the entire qualification process to gain their place in the group stages. Their Merseyside rivals Everton, who had finished fourth the previous season, suffered a heartbreaking 4-2 aggregate defeat to Villarreal in the final qualifying round while Liverpool progressed at the expense of CSKA Sofia. Due to the unique circumstances of their qualification, however, Benitez's side were not handed the advantage of avoiding a team from their own country in the group stages.

And so, rather inevitably, Chelsea and Liverpool were put together in Group G, with both games ending 0-0, although the two sides went through.

Following the first game, at Anfield, Benitez threw his own dig, taking a shot at the way their rivals played: “To me, Arsenal play much better football. They win matches and are exciting to watch. Barcelona and Milan too. They create excitement so how can you say Chelsea are the best team in the world?"

There were 4-1 and 2-0 wins for Mourinho in the two league games, as they once again became champions, but he struggled to beat his rival in the cup.

Benitez’s side won the FA Cup semi-final between the pair 2-1, before going on to win the Millennium Stadium final against West Ham in a dramatic win on penalties after a 3-3 draw.

Mourinho and Benitez were the catalysts for the rivalry. Image: Alamy
Mourinho and Benitez were the catalysts for the rivalry. Image: Alamy

In typical fashion, Mourinho was not impressed with the Reds' approach, once again reiterating that the better team didn’t win, sniping: “Did the best team win? I don't think so. In a one-off game maybe they will surprise me and they can do it. In the Premiership, the distance between the teams is 45 points over two seasons."

Liverpool beat Chelsea in the following season’s Community Shield, the traditional curtain-raiser for the season and they shared a win apiece in the league.

They once again met in the semi-final stage of the Champions League, with Joe Cole’s goal in the first game separating the two sides.

Ahead of the second leg, Benitez took a shot at Mourinho’s nickname and the fact that home fans had been given flags to wave in the first game, saying: “We have our special ones here, they are our fans, who always play with their hearts. We don't need to give away flags for our fans to wave. Our supporters are always there with their hearts, and that is all we need. It's the passion of the fans that helps to win matches, not flags.”

Daniel Agger’s goal was the only one in 120 minutes at Anfield and the two sides had to be separated by a penalty shootout, with Pepe Reina saving twice, as once again Benitez got the better of his foe.

Reina becomes the hero in the sides' next Champions League meeting. Image: Alamy
Reina becomes the hero in the sides' next Champions League meeting. Image: Alamy

The two managers would only meet once more while in charge of the two teams, a 1-1 league draw at the beginning of the 2007/08 campaign, before Mourinho lost his job.

His successor Avram Grant then took Chelsea to a League Cup fifth-round victory over Benitez and at the third time of asking the Blues got the better of their fierce rivals in a Champions League semi-final, winning the second leg in extra-time.

In what was starting to feel like an almost rigged draw by UEFA, the two sides were again pulled out of the hat together in the 2008/09 season, although this time at least it was at the quarter-final stage.

Carlo Ancelotti’s side won the first leg 3-1, away from home, before momentum shifted one way and then the other in an extremely exciting 4-4 draw at Stamford Bridge, with the Blues going through.

Things cooled down for a bit after the frankly ludicrous period in which they played each other 24 times, with a number of the fixtures across five different Champions League campaigns.

However, at the beginning of 2011, Chelsea stoked the flames of this rivalry once again by making their move for Liverpool's star striker Fernando Torres.

Torres' move was not popular in the red half of Merseyside. Image: Alamy
Torres' move was not popular in the red half of Merseyside. Image: Alamy

The Merseysiders did everything they could to stop him from going to their rivals but a £50 million bid was just too much for them to turn down.

When the two sides met just a week later at the Bridge, in Torres’ debut for his new side, the visiting fans held signs calling the Spanish striker a ‘traitor.’

Agger made sure the former Liverpool man knew what his now ex colleagues thought of him, smashing the forward to the ground early in the game, with the Reds going on to win 1-0.

Benitez surprisingly re-entered the rivalry but this time as Chelsea’s interim manager, much to the anger of many of their fanbase.

Ahead of his first game in charge of the club, a 0-0 draw with Manchester City, fans held up banners calling for “Benitez Out,” and much stronger sentiments too.

Benitez's arrival in west London was not popular. Image: Alamy
Benitez's arrival in west London was not popular. Image: Alamy

Fans demanded he apologise for the things he’d said about their club in the past, and the disparaging remarks about the supporters.

By the end they’d somewhat warmed to him after he steered them to a third-place finish and also won the Europa League, by beating Benfica in the final.

Like any good long-running soap opera, the main villain was about to re-emerge, with Mourinho returning to Stamford Bridge to replace his nemesis, after Benitez’s interim job had ended.

When the ‘Special One’ arrived in Liverpool in April 2014, it was Brendan Rodgers' free-scoring side who looked nailed on to win the title.

Just two weeks before they had beaten title rivals City 3-2, thanks to Philippe Coutinho’s late goal, keeping them two points clear of Chelsea and seven ahead of City, with only four games of the campaign left as they narrowed in on a first league title since 1990.

Captain Gerrard rallied his troops after the game and told them ‘We do not let this slip,’ in the middle of the pitch, a now-notorious speech that would come back to haunt him.

Mourinho was in full sh*thouse mode in one of the Premier League's most iconic matches. Image: Alamy
Mourinho was in full sh*thouse mode in one of the Premier League's most iconic matches. Image: Alamy

Mourinho set up his side in an even more defensive fashion than is normal for him and the time-wasting started early, with the manager trying to hold on to the ball for as long as possible to delay a Liverpool throw-in.

And their gameplan worked to the letter as in first-half stoppage time, Gerrard slipped as he miscontrolled a pass and Demba Ba ran clear on goal to open the scoring.

Liverpool threw everything at Mourinho's well-drilled visitors but could not find the breakthrough and were suckerpunched again in injury time.

With the Reds pushing for a late equaliser, the Blues won the ball and broke before Willian put Fernando Torres through with no-one to beat but Simon Mignolet in the Liverpool goal.

Perhaps not wanting to rub salt in the wounds of his old club, perhaps put off by his own dreadful form or perhaps just realising a pass would make for an easy tap-in, the former Liverpool man squared it back to Willian to double the lead, and put the title race back in City’s hands, with the Blues duly going on to win the league.

Things may have cooled somewhat in the intervening years, with Liverpool challenging City for titles and Chelsea now involved in battles for the top four, but Jurgen Klopp still has three cup final victories to his name over their rivals.

A few years after refusing to be subbed off in a League Cup final, Kepa came on as a substitute, failed to save a single penalty and missed the decisive spot kick. Image: Alamy
A few years after refusing to be subbed off in a League Cup final, Kepa came on as a substitute, failed to save a single penalty and missed the decisive spot kick. Image: Alamy

He beat Frank Lampard’s side in the UEFA Super Cup on penalties in 2019 and needed two further shootouts last season.

The Reds came out on top twice at Wembley in both the Carabao Cup and FA Cup finals, with Kepa Arrizabalaga famously the only player to miss a spot-kick in the former.

After winning the FA Cup last season, Klopp’s men were still attempting to become the first team to win the quadruple.

Just eight months later, the two sides meet with both languishing in mid-table, but we imagine it’ll be no less spicy than we have come to expect from a fixture that remains one of English football's unlikely but great rivalries.

Featured Image Credit: Alamy

Topics: Football, Spotlight, Premier League, Liverpool, Chelsea, Rafa Benitez, Jose Mourinho, Fernando Torres, Champions League

Ryan Sidle
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