The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.

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Chelsea 4 – 4 Liverpool: The Mirror, and Breaking It

After the Lucas/Essien thousand-point pinball goal, I thought, “There’s no chance Chelsea will concede three in ten minutes, is there?”

Then I thought, “Well, it’s been known to happen.”

Then Riera crossed for Kuyt to make it 4-3.

By the end of this game, Tommy Smyth was openly admitting that he no longer understood what the aggregate score was or how to calculate the scenarios for advancement, and even with the stipulation that we’re not talking about an announcer whom most soccer fans would credit with extreme mathematical perspicacity, it was a telling comment. Matches don’t tend to bewilder the commentators with possibility unless something reasonably special is happening.

It was full of weird symmetries. There were two shocking goalkeeping errors and two brilliant free kicks, split evenly between the teams and on either side of halftime. Both teams were missing their captains. Both teams had star attacking players—I mean Kalou and Torres—who failed to make an impact on the match. Every time Kuyt bungled an easy header, it seemed as though Ballack would bungle an easy shot. And yet both teams took seemingly insurmountable leads and made seemingly impossible comebacks. It wasn’t quite like watching shadowboxing, because the thing wasn’t synchronized to its reflection; it was like reading some brutally well-constructed story about how the wheel of fortune upends the lives of twins. Every triumphant action contained the impetus of its own reversal.

It was never, for all that, the sort of match that makes your heart just fly, maybe because the rhythm was so choppy (the referee was a literalist), maybe because the defending was halfhearted at times, maybe because luck played such a role in three of Liverpool’s goals (the Čech shocker, the soft penalty, the angle of Essien’s shoulder). It was more abstract and cosmic than epic, like listening to the subject of a fugue disconnect from itself and sail toward some distant resolution. It was exhilarating rather than visceral; there was something almost intellectual about it, though I’m sure fans of either team will have had a different experience.

In the end I thought Chelsea deserved to advance, on the strength of this game as well as their performance last week. When the symmetry finally broke, it broke in their favor, and they did what Liverpool didn’t: they scored a goal that lifted clear of the jumble of play and crystallized a moment of intention. I mean Lampard’s last, obviously, that clean curl into the top corner. It wasn’t an immortally great goal, but it was a moment of beautiful football in a match that up till then had offered everything but that.

The aggregate scoreline says that Chelsea won by two goals, but everyone who saw the game will remember that they won by an inch and an ounce. Until almost the very end of the match, every possibility you could think of seemed just about equally alive, amazing, and plausible. That was more salient than the scoreline, and that’s what ought to last.

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Chelsea 4 – 4 Liverpool: The Mirror, and Breaking It

by Brian Phillips · April 14, 2009

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