Two-goal Branislav Ivanovic was the unlikeliest of heroes in a 3-1 win for Chelsea at Anfield, as the Blues scored three aways goals to take a huge lead back to Stamford Bridge next week.
Familiarity has bred contempt, but rather than the awkward impasse that usually accompanies occasions such as these, Chelsea dazzled, imposing their personality on a match that sprang to vivid life.
We came expecting a chess match but got instead a contest with steel chairs.
Liverpool clobbered Chelsea over the head as early as the sixth minute when Fernando Torres shot home.
The visitors shuddered momentarily but displayed full use of their faculties and though Ivanovic, twice exposing Liverpool’s zonal marking from corners in scoring his first goals for The Blues, was the surprise assailant, that is not to suggest his team were not worthy winners.
Didier Drogba's third goal struck 23 minutes from time was the most crushing of blows.
The performance of Guus Hiddink’s side was all the more notable given the concession of such an early goal. After Ivanovic’s loose clearance, Dirk Kuyt played the ball wide to Alvaro Arbeloa and his slid cross was finished from 10 yards in the consummate fashion that is Torres’s trademark.
Chelsea could have silenced Liverpool cheers almost immediately. Salomon Kalou put Fabio Aurelio under pressure and when the full back was unable to keep possession, the Chelsea wideman teed up Drogba who had only Jose Reina to beat. The Spaniard was out quickly, but the Ivorian hedged his bets and shot straight, at the place where Reina stood resolutely.
The normally cagey first leg that had been anticipated was replaced by two teams who seemed intent on settling the contest in the first 15 minutes of the first half of the first game.
Florent Malouda fired wide at one end, while, at the other, Lampard was dispossessed by Torres who, with no support, turned inside before bending a hopeful shot at goal that cleared Cech’s crossbar by a yard.
Drogba missed another two to bring his side level in the 28th minute. Michael Ballack’s coaxed pass gave the Ivorian another unobstructed view of Reina’s goal, but, on his less-favored left foot, the striker cracked a shot over the bar.
Arbeloa cut inside on to his weaker left foot and curled a shot wide, but the visitors were the more impressive in attack and deservedly drew level six minutes before half-time when Ivanovic exposed Liverpool’s zonal marking system from a corner to head past Reina from six yards.
Just as Chelsea had the opportunity to stick cheers in collective throats though, so Kuyt could have regained the lead for his team only to be denied by a save from Cech.
The suspicion that the first half might have been an aberration outside of the tactical control of messrs Hiddink and Benitez was quickly dismissed. Wednesday's match was no place for cynics.
On one rare occasion when Steven Gerrard circumnavigated the near impenetrable wall built by Michael Essien, Liverpool's captain shot wide.
Drogba was running in on goal for a third time in the 53rd minute but, like the previous two occasions, failed to capitalize. After Aurelio’s misplaced pass had given the Ivorian his unexpected opportunity, his scuffed shot that beat Reina was cleared from the line by Jamie Carragher.
The same shooting inaccuracy proved contagious as Torres also skied a very presentable opening.
John Terry received an unwarranted yellow card that will rule him out of the second leg shortly before the hour mark after colliding headfirst with the torso of Reina.
Injustice evaporated almost immediately, though, as his team took the lead through Ivanovic’s second goal of the game. Again he exposed Liverpool’s marking from a corner, heading home emphatically from an inswinging Lampard delivery.
Rafa Benitez needed to take action and was calling on his team’s latest matchwinner, Yossi Benayoun, midway through the half, but unbeknown to the Spaniard, the match – and possibly the tie - was about to be decided.
Chelsea’s football was again too good as Ballack's ball down the line was weighted perfectly for Florent Malouda who slid a ball across the goal for a rampaging Drogba to bury emphatically.
Understandably content with their lot, Hiddink’s side sat back for the final 15 minutes but retained a threat on the break, not least when Drogba’s lofted cross was eyed by both Reina and substitute Andrea Dossena.
The arrival of runaway train Ryan Babel for the lamentable Lucas Leiva 10 minutes from time was long overdue but it failed to lift Liverpool’s crushed spirit and Lampard
Battered and bruised, Liverpool have just six days to shrug off the effects of a punishing 90 minutes before next week's second leg at Stamford Bridge, but Chelsea's lead has the appearance of something insurmountable.