Sunday, February 6, 2011
Blues title dream broken on Torres bow
Tom Adams, Stamford Bridge
'He who betrays, will always walk alone' read one of the many banners displayed by Liverpool supporters at Stamford Bridge, and Fernando Torres' walk to the touchline with a full 25 minutes to go, greeted with howls of derision from those who had once idolised him, was certainly a lonely one. Just four minutes after his unexpectedly premature departure, Raul Meireles gave Liverpool a hard-earned 1-0 victory and Torres' former supporters lapped it up. "You should have stayed at a big club," they sang, as Chelsea succumbed to a seventh defeat of the season. The man who moved in search of trophies will not be winning his first league title this year.
After days of unremitting hype, it was an inauspicious debut from the £50 million man, who struggled to settle into a new tactical shape employed precisely to extract the best from Torres and Didier Drogba. In contrast, a Liverpool side deprived of their star player found tactical acclimatisation altogether more productive in an unfamiliar 3-4-2-1 formation, restricting the home side to one shot on target and demonstrating, as Kenny Dalglish so pertinently put it in the wake of Torres' exit, that there is no-one bigger than the club. The victory, secured without the injured Andy Carroll and with Luis Suarez remaining on the bench, unsurprisingly felt like vindication to those Liverpool supporters so hurt by Torres' belief that Chelsea represented a step up in his career.
After all, while Torres may have insisted that he never indulged in that most vacuous display of professed loyalty, the badge kiss, he did seek to conspicuously romance Liverpool fans during his time at Anfield. His glowing appraisal of the club's history and fawning dedication in his autobiography to "the best fans in the world" were seductive in the extreme, and only made the heartbreak more palpable when he sought divorce. The timing of his transfer request, his ultimate destination and the declaration that the move was a "big step forward' made this an even more unpalatable scenario to Liverpool supporters.
Stripping away emotion though, few could blame him, especially following the decay seen under Tom Hicks and George Gillett. Quite rightly, Torres cited the sales of Xabi Alonso, now of Real Madrid, and Javier Mascherano, residing at Barcelona, as evidence of promises broken at Anfield, ambitions curtailed. In Chelsea he has joined a club where the Champions League is an immediate aim, rather than a dot on the horizon. However, after this defeat, Torres will not end the season with a Premier League crown. If Chelsea hadn't surrendered already, this was surely the game that deposed the reigning champions, even if Ancelotti insisted: "We have to try and fight for the title".
Strangely enough, the last time Kenny Dalglish managed a Liverpool team at Stamford Bridge, in December 1989, Chelsea were also reigning champions, but of the Second Division, and the Reds were en route to their 18th league title. In the intervening years, the landscape has changed irrevocably, though Liverpool are still searching for a 19th. It is precisely this divergence in the balance of power between the two clubs, amplified in the past 18 months, that convinced Torres to turn his back on Liverpool.
Their supporters would not let him forget it, but Dalglish denied the presence of Torres provided extra motivation. "I wanted three points, and if Carlo Ancelotti was playing up front I would still have wanted three points," Dalglish said. "I'm not here to talk about someone else's player. We have said all we have to say."
Though he hardly resembled a 51-year-old Italian with a self-declared food obsession, Torres was not quite himself playing alongside Didier Drogba, and with Nicolas Anelka lurking in a withdrawn position. Torres' arrival saw Chelsea shift from the 4-3-3 that secured them the title last season to a 4-1-2-1-2, and on this evidence, their new approach will require some finessing before it functions properly, even if Torres was bright in the opening exchanges.
Indeed, he was almost afforded a dream start after two minutes. Maxi Rodriguez's sloppy pass gifted possession, Torres drove forward and hammered a shot high into the Shed End, his wayward effort met with a hail of plastic bottles and discarded 'Torres 9' shirts from the away supporters. With Florent Malouda relegated to the bench in this new-look Chelsea line-up, the home side concentrated their attacks through the centre of the pitch, and one such move saw Drogba slip a though-pass to Torres again, whose low effort was blocked by a sliding Jamie Carragher.
But Chelsea were finding cohesion to be elusive, and Anelka appeared unsuited to the role asked of him. Ancelotti was unrepentant in his press conference though. "We have to give [Torres] time to adjust in this shape and I think that he will do quickly. I am sure that the problem was not the shape. The problem was not to put together these players. They have a lot of quality and I have to try to put them together. The shape was good. We could play better as a team."
Liverpool could hardly have played better as a unit, but they would certainly have benefitted from a figure blessed with a predatory instinct on 33 minutes when Maxi contrived to produce one of the misses of the season, smacking the crossbar from two yards when meeting a cross from Gerrard at the far post.
Dalglish's tactical approach, with Lucas combative behind Gerrard and Meireles and Johnson and Kelly offering width, continued to stifle Chelsea. On 69 minutes, it was a moment of pressure from the visitors which resulted in a fourth goal in five games for Meireles. Cech was unable to claim a Gerrard cross under pressure from Kuyt and the midfielder pounced at the far post. If Roy Hodgson's Liverpool legacy is poisonous, at least he can reflect favourably on the addition of the Portugal international to the squad over the summer.
Chelsea's own arrival from Portugal, former Benfica defender David Luiz, was handed a debut in place of Jose Bosingwa as defeat approached, and Chelsea howled for a penalty when Ivanovic went down the box following contact from Glen Johnson, but it was the difficult afternoon endured by their other deadline day signing that predictably dominated the agenda.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Jamie Carragher. Making his first appearance since November, Carragher denied Torres in the first half with a fine block and superbly marshalled a defence deployed in an unfamiliar shape. He also barked orders at Martin Kelly throughout, ensuring the young man was alert in his wing-back role.
CHELSEA VERDICT: If Torres was signed in order to provide a greater cutting edge, he did not supply it: Chelsea had 19 shots but only one was on target. Placing Anelka in the hole looks to be problematic as Frank Lampard had a quiet afternoon, and Ancelotti has plenty to ponder as he seeks to get the best out of his new signing.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Having secured a fourth win in succession, and at the home of a side they have built up a genuine rivalry with in recent seasons, this was perhaps the peak of Liverpool's season. The clamour for Dalglish to stay on beyond the summer will only increase after his 3-4-2-1 formation - a sight rarely seen in the Premier League - served to constrain Chelsea. Full of fight and spirit, this was the Liverpool of old.
CROWNING THE KING? In response to questions as to whether he would be remaining in his post for next season, Dalglish proved evasive. "I'm only doing what I said I would do," he said. "I'll not stand in the way of progress at this football club and I've not had a conversation with them [the owners]. Is there anything in the diary? No."