LIVERPOOL, April 9 – Guus Hiddink believes Chelsea are on course for the Champions League semi-finals because they have found a way to expose the flaws in Liverpool's gameplan.
Hiddink made a mockery of Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez’s reputation as European football’s master tactician by pinpointing the Reds’ weaknesses in defence and attack and exploiting them ruthlessly.
Despite falling behind to an early Fernando Torres goal in Wednesday’s quarter-final first leg at Anfield, Chelsea hit back through two Branislav Ivanovic headers and a Didier Drogba strike to claim a stunning 3-1 victory.
Ivanovic’s goals – the Serbian defender’s first for Chelsea – underlined Hiddink’s superior planning.
Benitez asks Liverpool’s defenders to use a zonal marking system at set-pieces which means they have to mark space instead of opponents. That gave Ivanovic a free run at every corner and he took full advantage with two thumping headers past Jose Reina.
Just as importantly, Hiddink deployed Michael Essien in deep-lying midfield role to stop Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard. Essien performed the job to perfection and, with Gerrard stifled, Liverpool’s supply line to Torres was cut off.
"If you feel that the opponent can be hurt in some parts of their team it would be stupid not to go for that," Hiddink said. "They have zonal defence at corners and there is no marking. We talked about that.
"We have players who are tall and are very brave going into the area. It was true we got a lot of benefit in the air from set pieces.
"You have to analyse where the weapons are with Liverpool and it is not so difficult to see it is Gerrard and Torres. You have to disarm them and Essien was the man who was key for this."
Hiddink’s ploys have surely made next Tuesday’s second leg at Stamford Bridge a formality and Liverpool, for so long Chelsea’s bogey team in Europe, look set to bow out against the Blues for the second successive season.
Although John Terry will be suspended for the return after being booked for a foul on Jose Reina, it seems certain that last season’s beaten finalists are in line for a semi-final showdown with Barcelona, 4-0 winners over Bayern Munich in their first leg.
Hiddink insists Liverpool cannot be underestimated but even he was forced to admit the result has put Chelsea in pole position.
"To be honest to play Liverpool at Anfield is always a hard job, so at the end we were very happy with this result. It is unexpected to be honest but I think well deserved," he said.
"The next game we have to be very concentrated. Don’t think we will take this very lightly because Liverpool have proved in the past they can surprise."
After storming back into the Premier League title race, Liverpool were expecting to continue their impressive European record under Benitez. Instead they were handed their biggest defeat at Anfield since Arsenal won 6-3 in January 2007.
Benitez cut a forlorn figure as he conceded that Liverpool had only themselves to blame for a result that leaves them on the verge of elimination.
"We made a mistake for their first goal. We had three players around and we didn’t stop him. It was a free header. Clearly when you have people in there we have to control all the spaces," he said.
"There are still 90 minutes to play but the second game will be very difficult now because we have to score three goals.
"Everyone knows Chelsea are a strong team. They have won many away games in the Premier League. You can see now they have a lot of confidence. They are playing very well.
"When you lose a game it is always difficult, especially in this competition because people were saying we had a chance.
"Now we have to forget it as soon as possible, think about Blackburn on Saturday and then go to Chelsea and try to do our best."