André Villas-Boas's attempt to integrate youthful dynamism into his faltering team fails because of the visitors' superior knowhow
After he had checked that his ankle was still affixed to his leg and the lengthy treatment had finished, Jordan Henderson had one question for the assorted black puffa jackets on the Liverpool bench. "Who did it?"
The referee Phil Dowd did not know; the hapless official booked the wrong Chelsea player. Ryan Bertrand was on the scene but he had not perpetrated the assault. Henderson was raging. Understandably. However, when he was filled in on the identity of his assailant, he may have gathered himself.
Oh, the hulking 6ft 4in centre-forward. If he told you that he was 6ft 6in, you would agree with him. But this was not the type of impression that Romelu Lukaku might have wanted to make on a rare start for Chelsea, in a cup quarter-final, which was comfortably the biggest game of his career at the club.
The summer signing's tackle in the 44th minute was high, hard and, frankly, scandalous. It was what professionals term a "leg-breaker" and Henderson could consider himself mightily fortunate to escape. Lukaku's indiscipline smacked of frustration – his touch had been heavy and his sights awry – and it represented a low point for the young guns that the Chelsea manager, André Villas-Boas, had charged with great responsibility.
There were four of them, Lukaku and Bertrand joined by Josh McEachran and Oriol Romeu and their fortunes were decidedly mixed. If Bertrand could reflect upon how the case of mistaken identity blotted a generally composed performance, McEachran endured injury frustration, lasting only until the 41st minute until he could handle the pain of a heavy knock to the foot no more. He had been eye-catching in fits and starts.
Romeu was nickname-checked in JT's programme notes. "Well done to Ori on his first Premier League start for us on Saturday [against Wolves]," the Chelsea and England captain wrote. "He is clearly a great prospect." The defensive midfielder emerged with honours, his positional sense and composure marking him out. With McEachran's involvement cut short, he was the pick of the team's rookies. Lukaku, who missed a clear headed chance in first-half injury time and was substituted early in the second half, was the villain.
Villas-Boas's attempt to integrate youthful dynamism will take time – which is a commodity not regularly associated with Chelsea managers – and it was Liverpool's superior knowhow that illuminated the occasion. They gloried in a second win at this stadium in two weeks. It was deserved. Henderson's revenge might have been found, in part, in his role in Maxi Rodríguez's opening goal but it was Craig Bellamy, with two assists, who was the star turn.
It was one of those evenings when the release of the teamsheets was prefaced by a sense of anticipation. Kenny Dalglish had nursed a grievance for some weeks over the "disgraceful" scheduling of the tie, coming as it did a little over 48 hours after the Premier League fixture at home to Manchester City, and he had threatened to "use only young players".
In the event, the threat proved hollow, despite rare starts for Sebastián Coates and Jay Spearing. Coates made mistakes but he also distinguished himself with several vital interventions while Spearing was solid. Dalglish has regularly spoken of his squad's strength in depth and this was a chance to showcase it. Despite his attempts to play down the fixture's importance, he surely recognises the spur that a trophy might offer to his reign. He has taken a bold step towards one.
Villas-Boas's quartet of aspiring stars strained every sinew to impress but there can be dangers in trying too hard. It was interesting to see Villas-Boas start McEachran at the tip of a midfield diamond. This is the platform that the 18-year craves and he was all tidy touches, particularly his first ones, which generally advertise a player's class. It was just a pity that he did not last. The knock came in an 18th-minute tackle with Spearing and the writing was on the wall when he had treatment for the second time.
Chelsea's young players struggled to provide a tonic and the pressure has been ratcheted up on Villas-Boas. Dalglish's smile lit up the Bridge.