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Ivanovic sends Chelsea to Wembley


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Branislav Ivanovic was the hero as Chelsea booked a place in the Capital One Cup final at Wembley in March.

The defender – who famously scored twice up at Anfield in a UEFA Champions League quarter-final in 2009 – rose highest to direct a bullet header beyond Simon Mignolet in the fourth minute of extra time.

With the benefit of Eden Hazard’s penalty offering the insurance of an away goal from last week’s 1-1 draw in the first leg, the Blues were on that evening indebted to their goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois, who made a string of outstanding saves to deny Brendan Rodgers’ side.

And the Belgian number one was once again in fine fettle as he made two excellent first-half saves; repelling efforts from Alberto Moreno and Philippe Coutinho to maintain parity heading into the interval.

After the debacle of Saturday’s home humiliation at the hands of Bradford in the FA Cup, an emphatic response was expected from José Mourinho’s men, but faced with another energetic Liverpool side invigorated by their second-half dominance at Anfield, the Blues struggled to impose themselves until the enforced introduction of Ramires after 50 minutes.

Chelsea did have their chances as the game wore on, and but for the intervention of Mignolet - who stretched out a leg to block Diego Costa’s deflected drive - the Blues would have taken a late lead. Instead, early in extra time, Ivanovic struck in trademark fashion.

Rising highest, the Serbian powered home beyond the exposed Liverpool goalkeeper to send Stamford Bridge into raptures, and the club to Wembley for a first League Cup final since 2008.

It is somewhat fitting that Ivanovic, the villain in 2013 when his two mistakes in the first leg of a semi-final clash with Swansea led to the Blues' exit at that stage, would make amends here - but even in spite of his goalscoring heroics, this was a game that will be remembered largely for the wrong reasons in light of a poor refereeing performance by Michael Oliver.

If Liverpool will feel aggrieved that their first leg endeavours failed to produce an aggregate lead, then Chelsea experienced a similar degree of disappointment as Oliver failed to point to the spot on two occasions.

The game was just five minutes old when Lucas smothered a strike from Willian with an outstretched arm, whilst Costa – who himself was arguably fortunate not to be dismissed for a number of unruly incidents – was blatantly hacked to the ground by Martin Skrtel. Both incidents were in plain view for the referee, and Mourinho looked equal parts bemused and aghast on the touchline that his side had twice been incorrectly denied a penalty.

The first opportunity of the game came about when Kurt Zouma, in for Gary Cahill, made a wonderful recovery run and tackle to prevent Raheem Sterling from escaping, whilst Mignolet will have been relieved that Hazard was less than inch away from connecting with a stunning Ivanovic cross.

Steven Gerrard, the subject of many a Chelsea taunt for his slip at Anfield that effectively cost his team the Premier League title last season, then split the Blues defence with a raking pass into the feet of Moreno, but the former Sevilla man was thwarted by an excellent one-on-one block by Courtois, who parried the ball out for a corner.

Coutinho then wasted a glorious opportunity when he shot straight at Courtois from the edge of the penalty area – and with that moment, arguably, went Liverpool’s chances of stealing the game.

From that point onwards, particularly after the half-time break, it was a more efficient Chelsea display. The Blues had been able to tighten up at the back with the addition of Ramires, whilst Hazard was beginning to assert himself with his typical poise and trickery.

After a number of clashes between Costa and Liverpool’s Skrtel the game was perilously close to exploding, but when Skrtel reacted angrily to what may have been a deliberate stamp by the naturalised Spaniard, it took the intervention of both John Terry and Gerrard to calm the situation. The match was boiling up dangerously.

Hazard then nearly set the game alight himself, but in more poignant fashion, as his terrific drive from midfield resulted in the Belgian hammering a shot narrowly wide of Mignolet’s goal. Chelsea were cranking up the pressure and with Costa, the typical wind-up merchant he is playing the role of chief cheerleader, the Blues were certainly knocking on the door of a Wembley showpiece final.

Mignolet then made an excellent improvised save with his feet to prevent Costa’s deflected effort from beating him, before again denying the striker with an outstretched foot as Costa tried to round him. With the unrelenting pace to the game making it quite a spectacle, how it was, at that point, still 0-0 was frankly beyond comprehension.

Tempers were again flaring when Jordan Henderson, already in the book for a number of offences, then blatantly blocked an inventive Hazard flick with an outstretched hand. The Chelsea support, baying for blood, pleaded with chants of “Off, Off!”, but the referee showed a degree of leniency towards the former Sunderland man.

That extent of charity was then extended to Lucas, who, similarly booked earlier on, committed his umpteenth foul of the evening but escaped without the punishment of a second yellow card.

With both sets of players visibly jaded by the furious pace of the game, full-time crept upon the game with both sides seemingly content to battle away for another half-hour. But just four minutes into the additional period, Ivanovic popped up to head in Willian’s excellently flighted free-kick to send the Chelsea fans into ecstasy.

Henderson wasted the one glorious chance the visitors were able to conjure when he directed a header wide of a gaping goal, but Chelsea, again more professional than prosaic in possession, hung on with a degree of relative comfort against a Liverpool side that had given absolutely everything over the course of the two legs.

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