Sunday, May 2, 2010
Gerrard puts Chelsea on the brink
Richard Jolly, Anfield
By their very definition, champions tend to possess certain special qualities. Chelsea's credentials have been questioned but their case includes one watertight argument. They are the specialists on the major occasions. Previous winners have been more frugal in defence, less liable to lose leads or games, or able to marry excellence in England with continental conquests. Chelsea have simply beaten each of their rivals. Twice.
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• Liverpool 0-2 Chelsea
They have defeated Manchester United, Arsenal and now Liverpool home and away. Going to Anfield is no longer the daunting task it once was, but Chelsea prevailed under pressure. The sizeable task of overcoming each of the 'big four' reached a successful conclusion. So should their season when Wigan visit Stamford Bridge on Sunday. The title awaits.
Six out of six is a statistic shared by their match-winner par excellence, Didier Drogba, in those matches. He averages a goal a game. The latest was the most significant, the simplest and yet one of the most contentious of all.
The superlative Wayne Rooney has merited his Footballer of the Year awards, but Drogba has determined the defining clashes of the season. He had a usual accomplice in Frank Lampard, scorer of the second goal, and an unexpected assistant in Steven Gerrard, provider of the first.
It was a reminder that champions also tend to benefit from luck, and Manchester United can lament Drogba's offside goal at Old Trafford as well as Gerrard's dreadful back-pass at Anfield. "Are you watching, Manchester?" asked the Chelsea fans thereafter, and it is to be presumed Sir Alex Ferguson turned an unhealthy shade of purple when he saw the critical goal. This was enough, in all probability, to deny him that historic 19th title.
"They've lost 19 games this season," Ferguson noted acerbically, his hopes of a favour from Anfield destroyed - in a moment to fuel conspiracy theories - by a player he once saw as Roy Keane's successor in his midfield.
But unlikely alliances can be forged in such circumstances. Outside Anfield, enterprising traders were discovering it can be profitable to sell Liverpool-Chelsea friendship scarves. In the choice between the Red Devil and deep Blue sea, a decision was made by the supporters. Chelsea may have been deemed the lesser of the evils.
However, the notion of being cockneys for a day seemed to have disappeared the first time Drogba indulged in his habitual theatrics, incurring the wrath of the crowd. Instead, the fond relationship was cemented with a present from Gerrard.
Drogba latched on to his dreadful pass to wander around Jose Reina and score. It was Gerrard and Drogba in harness: the sort of fantasy football project Roman Abramovich and Jose Mourinho attempted to indulge in five or six years ago. This, however, was being taken back to 2004 in another respect: it was surely Gerrard's worst back-pass since an equally awful misjudgement against France in the European Championships. "Gerrard made a big mistake but he didn't do it on purpose," Drogba said. "That goal changed the game," his manager, Carlo Ancelotti, said.
While Alberto Aquilani had clipped the bar with a thunderbolt, Liverpool's threat diminished thereafter. Chelsea's increased, the pace of the quartet of Drogba, Nicolas Anelka, Salomon Kalou and Florent Malouda rendering them a menace on the counter-attack. Lampard's 26th of a prolific campaign came when Anelka sprung the offside trap to cross.
Liverpool, already deprived of Maxi Rodriguez, lost Jamie Carragher in the build-up. They were increasingly exposed and increasingly reliant on their probable player of the year. Reina made a quartet of excellent saves, thwarting Anelka and Drogba and then, in the same move, Kalou and the Frenchman. "It was an important performance," Ancelotti added. "There was a pressure on us in this game. Defensively, we were excellent."
He is a former Juventus manager; his Liverpool counterpart is probably the next one. "I have four years of contract left so we will see," said Rafa Benitez, who parried a series of questions about his future, rather than committing it to Liverpool. "A difficult season," was his description of Anfield's annus horribilis. "Always the manager here has been taking responsibility for everything in the last two years," he added, a veiled reference, perhaps, to the owners who wanted him gone two years ago and the accumulation of 86 points last term.
They have 62 now. Fourth place has become a mathematical impossibility, seventh more likely. Loyalty has gone unrewarded among the supporters and there was a generous ovation for the underachieving players on their lap of honour, including a particularly loud cheer for Benitez. There had been a defiant chorus of his name from the Kop, but the chant of "Rafa Benitez, we want you to stay" came from the crowing Chelsea supporters.
It was a day when they were entitled to gloat. Liverpool are a club who were accustomed to reigning, but they became the unwitting kingmakers, not the kings. It was Gerrard who placed the crown on Chelsea heads. It fits them well nonetheless.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Salomon Kalou - A bit-part player for much of the season, the Ivorian has nonetheless exerted an influence of late, providing Drogba's goal at Old Trafford, scoring a hat-trick against Stoke and starring at Anfield. He played with a pace and an energy too few Liverpool players showed.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Tired after their efforts against Atletico Madrid, theirs was a subdued effort. Too few showed the defiance of the excellent Reina and too few showed the invention of Yossi Benayoun, who beat man after man and was the only player attempting to stop Lampard when he scored.
CHELSEA VERDICT: Solid in the first half, more adventurous in the second, they displayed both halves of their game. There was a cynical side, from Michael Ballack in particular, but John Terry and Alex showed their resolve in defence. Ancelotti's decision-making, whether selecting Joe Cole at Old Trafford or Kalou at Anfield, is a factor in their success.
STEVIE FLEE? As the players came back onto the pitch to accept the applause of the crowd after the final whistle, Gerrard cut a solitary figure. He often does, of course, and the error hardly rendered him any happier. But amid the talk about Benitez's future, the sight of a disillusioned captain hardly suggested he is happy.