For all the talk of midfielders during the build-up to the umpteenth clash between Chelsea and Liverpool in the last eighteen months, the game itself was all about strikers or the lack thereof in Liverpool’s case. Two masters of the profession, Zola and Osgood, were back at their spiritual home to watch a Hernan Crespo masterclass as we brushed aside Liverpool’s title ‘challenge’ at a buoyant Stamford Bridge yesterday afternoon.
Given the recent history between the two sides and our relatively mediocre form of late, a draw seemed the outcome most likely to worry the bookies. Whilst such a result would have benefited Chelsea more than it would have Liverpool, four stalemates in succession could have been cause for additional nerves with Barcelona just around the corner. But after an entertaining clash which emphatically stopped blip from becoming dip, we strengthened our grasp on the title and gave Jose a clean sweep of four league wins from four over Benitez since the Iberian pair commenced Premiership hostilities eighteen months ago.
Liverpool started well and gave Lampard and the returning Essien little time on the ball as their packed midfield hassled and chased, feeding on the knockdowns from Crouch, absent without leave from Billy Smart’s circus if the Matthew Harding Lower was to be believed, whose inevitable aerial threat caused Terry and Carvalho a few nervous moments. Despite their superiority in possession, Liverpool’s problem was illustrated perfectly as Hyypia, Carragher and Crouch all had attempts but failed to register a single shot on target between them.
The familiar “That’s why we’re champions” chant broke out across the Bridge ten minutes before half time. Carvalho beat Carragher and Hyypia to Lampard’s corner and nodded the ball down for Billy Gallas, the luckiest number 13 on earth, to hook the ball home for the eleventh goal of his Chelsea career leaving Benitez to bemoan his side’s inability to turn their dominance into a lead. Gallas remains the most versatile and underrated player in the Premiership and at twenty-eight years of age is now at the peak of his powers. His beaming Match of the Day interview revealed a happy man, despite media reports that he is to walk away at the end of his current deal with the Blues. Obtaining his signature on a new deal that keeps him at the Bridge for the rest of his career surely has to be Jose’s top priority come the close season.
The change that undid Benitez’s rather one-dimensional tactical plan came on the hour; Luis Garcia came on for John Arne Riise which loosened Liverpool’s grip on the midfield. Lampard and Essien started to run and pass in space previously unavailable; the full backs joined the fray and within ten minutes the match was all but over as a contest. Del Horno lifted Carragher’s clearance back over the Liverpool defence; Crespo powered the ball past Reina from a tight angle and sent the Bridge into orbit. Drogba may give more to the team effort, but for moments of sheer brilliance that both win matches and leave the crowd dumbstruck, the Argentine has few equals in the game and is fast approaching mythical status on the streets of SW6. The one nagging problem with his game is unfortunately beyond even his control; the affect he has on the hand / eye co-ordination of Premiership linesmen is as almost as supernatural as the runs that he makes. Following several questionable decisions in the draw against Charlton, the referee’s assistants again struggled with the movement of our man of the match. An incorrectly raised flag denied him a sublime second which he deftly chipped over Reina having run clear from an onside position just minutes after his match winner.
As it wouldn’t be a Chelsea v. Liverpool game without an incident for the football world to chew over angrily for a week or so, the inevitable controversy came in the 82nd minute. Liverpool’s back four lapsed and allowed Gudjohnsen to run onto a through ball which left Reina scampering out of his area in pursuit. The Spaniard’s initial hash of a tackle would have seen the likes of Essien heading for an early bath to howls of derision and calls for a public flogging; the heated exchanges that followed and his handbag to Robben’s cheek brought a theatrical dive from the Dutchman almost as impressive as Liverpool new boy Kromkamp’s triple pike with vinaigrette during their recent FA Cup clash with Portsmouth.
Whilst Robben made the best of the incident, not something this columnist enjoys seeing, the facts seem to have escaped many people who are now branding him as the latest Chelsea pariah; raising your hands on a football pitch constitutes violent conduct which invariably leads to dismissal. Whether the victim stands his ground and slaps you back, suggests that your mother supplies sexually bizarre services in return for a handful of small change and a large doner kebab or just hits the floor like a big shandy drinking Jessie is entirely irrelevant; Reina departed as did many of the travelling fans. This is of course before we consider what punishment may have been forthcoming for the original foul.
The aftermath gave us a fairly sizeable clue as to why Spain is a nation not noted for its contribution to the world of comedy; Benitez huffed and puffed in his post-match interview, sarcastically suggesting that he would “visit Robben in the hospital” to the rattle of tumbleweed and pleas for no encores from the viewing public. The failure to acknowledge that Cech had been a virtual bystander as Liverpool registered just two shots on target all game spoke volumes; his refusal to admit that Reina’s dismissal with the score at 2-0 and eight minutes to go had hardly changed the course of the game provoked far more mirth and laughter than his Robben jibes. Jose unusually steered himself clear of the controversy, preferring to comment on the need for eight more league wins to add to the fifty he has already collected with the Blues in order to retain the title.
Last season’s thirty-seven point gap between ourselves and Liverpool is likely to be halved come May but there is still much work to do up at Anfield. A great deal is made of Benitez as a tactician but whilst the old adage suggests that possession is nine-tenths of the law, in terms of football the jury will remain out if it brings no end product. For all Liverpool’s endeavour, their inability to demonstrate the ruthless edge needed in front of goal remains the most telling flaw in Rafa’s masterplan, especially against the sides at the top of the table. The away fans playfully taunted Ossie about his lack of European Cups during the half-time lap of appreciation (it’s their legendary wit, apparently), but even now given ten minutes and a pair of boots the King could probably have taught Benitez’s current strikeforce a thing or two about making the net bulge. The return of Robbie Fowler, absent yesterday for further work on his fitness, is certainly a gamble but even if he is only half the player he once was he will be several times as able as the oddly coiffured domestic violence specialist that is Djibril Cisse and his fellow forwards.
As with the game itself, the final word went to Crespo who joked that after his Champions League nightmare in Istanbul, he wasn’t about to suggest that the title race is over just yet. No such proclamations from this corner either, but I’m sure that many of us have one eye on which Monday to take off work to nurse that most unique of hangovers — the back-to-back title winner. You don’t get those in North London apparently; it must be the Campbell’s beer (a quick half that you don’t really enjoy and then home) they serve up there…