Monday, October 05, 2009

Match Report: Chelsea 2 - 0 Liverpool

Chelsea returned to the top of the Premier League on Sunday as goals from Nicolas Anelka and Florent Malouda clinched an impressive 2-0 win over Liverpool at Stamford Bridge.

Carlo Ancelotti's side opened up a two-point gap over second placed Manchester United. But perhaps more importantly, the victory over another of the main title contenders restored Chelsea to winning ways after their 3-1 defeat at Wigan last weekend.

After a tight first half, former Liverpool striker Anelka opened the scoring when he converted Didier Drogba's cross. Drogba was the provider again in stoppage time as he over-powered Jamie Carragher and crossed for Malouda to slide home.

Defeat leaves Liverpool six points behind Chelsea and Rafa Benitez's side have now lost three times in their first eight league games after losing just twice through the whole of last season.

Chelsea were without first-choice goalkeeper Petr Cech, who served his suspension following his red card against Wigan, so Hilario was between the posts.

But while Ancelotti's side were without Cech, they were buoyed by the return of Drogba.

The Ivory Coast striker missed the 1-0 win in the Champions League over Apoel Nicosia in midweek owing to his European ban.

Drogba's value to Chelsea is best illustrated by his return of six goals in seven league games going into this fixture.

And here he looked invigorated after his break when he chased down Deco's through-ball in the third minute forcing Carragher into a last-ditch tackle.

Although new to the English league, Ancelotti is no stranger to Liverpool. The Italian was manager of AC Milan in 2007 when they beat Liverpool 2-1 in the Champions League final in Athens - a victory that avenged Milan's defeat to the Reds in the final of the same competition in Istanbul two years earlier.

Benitez would love to repeat another victory in the Champions League this season and in striker Fernando Torres has a world-class player which would help him achieve it.

Torres, fresh from his hat-trick against Hull, has gone on record saying he is determined to end the club's three-year wait for a trophy.

And his team-mates looked to have taken that message on board as the visitors started this match the brighter with Steven Gerrard whipping in some dangerous crosses from the right.

But it was Chelsea who had the first shot on target in the 25th minute when Jose Reina was forced to save from Drogba's header.

Reina then needed to be alert moments later when Anelka tried his luck with a neat header. Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard also tried his luck, but his free-kick from distance was a long way off target.

But just as Chelsea were beginning to find their feet in this match, Albert Riera's free-kick in the 43rd minute nearly squeezed past Hilario at the far post.

After the restart it was Chelsea who looked most likely to make the breakthrough, and so it proved in the 60th minute.

Anelka finished off a neat move after Lampard had disposed Javier Mascherano and fed Deco. The Portugal midfielder in turn played the ball for Drogba and his cross from the left was perfect for Anelka to poke home.

Drogba came close to adding a second with a long-range free-kick which skidded past Reina's right post. But substitute Malouda did add a second in the 90th minute when he turned in Drogba's cross at the far post.

Benitez - We Can Still Challenge

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez believes his side can still challenge for the title despite going down 2-0 at Chelsea to suffer their third defeat of the season.

Nicolas Anelka opened the scoring on the hour mark before Florent Malouda made the game safe with Didier Drogba creating both goals for the hosts.

The Reds rarely troubled stand-in goalkeeper Hilario and have now lost more times in their opening eight matches than they did all the way through last season.

It is more than 40 years since any team have gone on to win the top-flight crown after losing three of their first eight games, but Benitez is unconcerned by the statistics.

"I feel the performance wasn't bad against a good team," said Benitez. "We worked hard, had some good play.

"Defensively we were good enough. They didn't have too many chances, so we were defending better. We didn't have too many chances, which means they're also a good team.

"But if you make a mistake against a good team, they score. The game was a bit more open after they scored and we had some chances but you have to take those if you want to come back into the game.

"Our target has to be the next game. It's important to keep calm, keep working, improving. We came up against a good team doing well today, so we have to focus on the next game.

"This year, the top sides will lose points against the other teams, so the main thing is to try and improve and do better each week. We will try to do better against Sunderland.

"We drew a lot of games last season. We lost just two but people were telling me about the draws. Now we're winning more and losing a few but maybe we'll have more points."

Midfielder Javier Mascherano lost possession for Chelsea's opener but Benitez refused to single out any of his team.

"I cannot blame any one of the players," he added. "We have to be pleased with the team effort.

"We made some mistakes but I was happy with the team effort. That was something we wanted to do. We were right 90 per cent of the time.

"But it's a long race. Chelsea are very strong but we'll try to stay as close as possible and see what happens in April and May.

"You will see the top sides losing more points against any team. That's good for the Premier League, for the competition, but it means we have to keep going. We can't think about three defeats.

"It's one game at a time, try to win the next game and improve. That's it."

Lucas Fails To Step Up To The Mark

There is a feeling that Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez can be a little too stubborn for his own good at times and he is putting his reputation in unnecessary jeopardy by belligerently backing misfiring midfielder Lucas.

Few Liverpool observers are convinced that the Brazilian midfielder has what it takes to claim a regular role in the heart of Benitez's side and his woeful performance in the defeat against Fiorentina on Tuesday night did little to silence the army who believe he would be more effectively employed as a bench warmer.

As it is, Benitez seems hell-bent on standing by a player he has long promoted as a star in the making, even though Lucas looks out of his depth against the better sides in the Premier League. He showed signs of life against the lesser lights Liverpool have come up against this season; when the chips were down against Tottenham and Aston Villa, Lucas went missing.

The same was true in this game at Stamford Bridge. He may have been helped by the return of Javier Mascherano after the Argentine missed the midweek trip to Florence, yet Lucas was anonymous and ineffective against rivals who rarely felt threatened by his presence.

Hard working and willing to give his all to the cause he may be, yet Lucas offers little more than uncreative energy to this Liverpool side. Indeed, by the time Benitez belatedly gave up on his "hero" by replacing him late on, this game was slipping out of Liverpool's grasp and a third Premier League defeat of the season was assured.

Quite where Benitez and Lucas go from here is anyone's guess. The imminent return to fitness of summer signing Alberto Aquilani may give the little Brazilian a chance to rebuild his eroded confidence in the reserves, but it seems as if he has a lot to do before he reaches the levels expected of him in a team hoping to challenge for the Premier League. However, such is Benitez's determination to prove those who doubt Lucas wrong that he will almost certainly be starting when Liverpool travel to face in-form Sunderland in their next league outing two weeks from now. Another defeat and their fading title bid would be all but over.

Such sweeping conclusions may be a little premature in the first weekend of October, yet such is the life of a Premier League manager and a player who appears to be falling below the grade.

Chelsea would have been suffering a similarly withering backlash if their indifferent week had continued with a second successive league defeat and yet they returned to the top of the table as the two key moments in this game went in their favour.

All too often, games between these sides have turned into dour stalemates and this was another morbid scrap for long periods. Liverpool may have started brightly, but their early enthusiasm waned all too quickly as the first half failed to sparkle.

To start with, we didn't even have the familiar side show of Drogba taking on the Reds back line by fair or foul means as we had to wait until the 33rd minute for his first battle with long-standing adversary Jamie Carragher. Drogba was to have a more prominent role in the second half.

The Chelsea striker spent much of the opening ten minutes of the first half rolling around as if a sniper was taking shots at him from the crowd. Liverpool supporters are not alone in believing the Ivory Coast marksman adds a little too much theatrical content to his play at times and it seemed as if this was going to be another day when he put his play-acting ahead of his sporting prowess.

However, the frustrating and brilliant Drogba often work in tandem and thus was the case again. His cross for Nicolas Anelka's opener was perfectly weighted before Drogba provided Florent Malouda with the second goal that killed off Liverpool in the closing stages.

As he held off the challenges of determined opponents to create Malouda's goal, Drogba proved he is more than capable of standing up to the most heated of physical confrontations. Why does the experienced footballer persist in indulging in his embarrassing tumbling antics when he has so much to offer the game?

Drogba's manager was not complaining as he toasted a much-needed victory in a week when the side went down to a shock defeat at Wigan and then played poorly against Apoel Nicosia in the Champions League.

"Liverpool are a strong team and made it very difficult for us," said Carlo Ancelotti. "We stayed compact and struck at the right moment on the counter attack. Our concentration was excellent and hopefully we can now feel as if we can forget about our bad performances of the last few days."

Benitez refused to hit the panic button when he was presented with a predictable set of negative questions from the press pack. "I felt that we were doing a good game and working hard, but then the small details went in Chelsea's favour," was the view of a surprisingly upbeat Benitez.

"They took their chances and we didn't. We felt as if we were in control until they scored and then things changed. We have to keep going as this is a long race. Yes were are disappointed, but the main thing is we can come back. There were some positives from this game."

The real question Benitez must answer in the next fortnight is whether he continues to lobby for a player who is not contributing enough to deserve re-election. After this latest no-show, Lucas's reputation must have hit rock bottom among Liverpool followers.

Torres Aims For Silverware

Fernando Torres admits it would be a "massive blow" if Liverpool finished this season with no silverware.

The Spain striker, who scored the winning goal in the Euro 2008 final to secure his country's first major trophy for 44 years, arrived at Anfield two years ago from Atletico Madrid but has yet to claim any honours with the Reds.

He is determined to put that right this season and would love to help clinch the club's first league title in 20 years.

"It is so important for me to get my first club medal with Liverpool but I am young, I am just 25," said Torres, who will be looking to add to his tally of five goals in six appearances against Chelsea when Rafael Benitez's side visit Stamford Bridge on Sunday.

"I have won top honours with Spain now and, yes, there is a desperation to win a trophy for the fans at Liverpool.

"Three years without a trophy is too much for Liverpool and especially the Premier League - it is far too long for this club.

"We have to improve and try to win the league, the Champions League or maybe a cup because to go another season and have four years without a trophy would be a massive blow for Liverpool.

"After winning the European Championship with Spain I know exactly how it feels to win a major trophy and I know that, if we can win at Liverpool, it will feel the same or even better than it did with Spain."

Ancelotti - Reds Miss Alonso

Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti believes Liverpool have 'lost something' following the summer departure of Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid.

Ancelotti is well aware of Alonso's influence having been impressed by the Spaniard's pairing with Javier Mascherano during his former club AC Milan's UEFA Champions League final clash with Liverpool in 2007.

Alonso's return to Spain has seen Lucas Leiva step into midfield alongside Mascherano, but the Brazilian has yet to convince in the role.

And, ahead of Liverpool's visit to Stamford Bridge on Sunday, Ancelotti does not believe the Reds' engine room is as strong as it was.

"The midfield of Liverpool put a lot of pressure on you because Alonso and Mascherano were fantastic players," said Ancelotti.

"Lucas is a young player and he has to get experience. I think he will be a very good midfielder, but without Alonso, they have lost something."

Meanwhile, Lucas believes the focus of Liverpool's ups and downs should be on the whole team, and not just star duo Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard.

"I don't think it is healthy that some people blame individuals when the team is losing," said Lucas in the Sunday Mirror.

"Everyone knows Gerrard and Torres are world-class players who are very important to Liverpool.

"But Liverpool aren't about individuals. We should not be about blaming certain people. If we win, we do it because we are a team. If we lose, it is exactly the same.

"My belief is that individuals can only play well if the whole team is playing well and that includes Stevie and Nando.

Lampard - Gerrard The Best

Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard has admitted playing against Steven Gerrard is the toughest test in football.

The duo lined up against each other on Sunday as Liverpool travel to Stamford Bridge to take on the Blues in the Premier League, and Lampard said games against the Reds always provide a difficult challenge.

Chelsea and Liverpool have had a number of memorable matches in recent seasons and Lampard is looking forward to testing himself against his England team-mate in the latest clash between the two clubs.

"I would say he is the hardest player to play against in midfield because he's got everything," said Lampard.

"He is a very complete midfield player. He's the stand-out one in England. Maybe when we play Arsenal and they are sometimes on top form, you could pick one of their players but Gerrard is the main one for me.

"It's a good rivalry because we get on well and I enjoy playing on the same side for England.

"A lot gets made of us playing together because we are quite similar, but in the past year or two I've felt a lot better about it.

"Stevie is one of the best players in the England team and probably in the world to be honest, so it's always nice to play with great players and against them as well."

Liverpool ended Chelsea's 86-match unbeaten run at home the last time they travelled to the Bridge in the league, and Lampard is wary of the threat posed by Rafa Benitez's team.

"If you asked me who our toughest opponents in Europe have been I'd have to go for Barcelona because they are such a talented team and we have played them so many times over the last few years," he added.

"But in England I would say Liverpool are our toughest rivals for sure. They aren't necessarily the best team, because Manchester United have proved they are the best.

"But Liverpool have a very difficult way of playing against you. They make it hard for you to play, their defence is very strong and they have a lot of players who press you, even up front."

Jamie Carragher Can Take Comfort From The Example Of Sami Hyypia

Amid the storm of criticism tossed up by his recent performances, the reports that his legs have gone and his body, wearied by years of battle, is starting to wilt, Jamie Carragher could do worse than turn to a fellow veteran for advice and comfort. Sami Hyypia, too, was written off long ago.

The Finn can sympathise with the man who stood by his side, defiant, in Istanbul, when Liverpool beat AC Milan to win the Champions League in 2005, safe in the knowledge that football has the shortest of memories.

Scarcely 10 games after that miraculous evening by the Bosporus, Didier Drogba tore him to shreds as Chelsea ransacked Anfield. The obituaries for Hyypia, Liverpool's rock for a decade, poured in.

Carragher, 31, has endured similar treatment this season. Blamed for Rafa Benítez's team's shortcomings at set pieces and terrorised by Zavon Hines, West Ham's coltish upstart, at Upton Park a fortnight ago, there are those who would suggest that while Carragher's heart and spirit remain, he has taken those first few dreaded steps on the long road to ruin.

Even John Terry, who Carragher will face this afternoon, stands accused of similar weaknesses. The Chelsea captain may be a mere stripling at 28, but such have been his injury problems and so consistently has he put his body on the line that he has the air of one much older than that.

Pace, the received wisdom goes, is too much for Terry and Carragher alike.

Much the same was said of Hyypia after that torrid afternoon in the presence of Drogba. Yet, three years later, three years older, the Finn stepped from the shadows at Old Trafford to marshal Liverpool's backline in a 4-1 demolition. The lesson? Pace is no guarantee of quality, age no obstacle to class.

"First and foremost, you have to be a good player," says Hyypia. "If you cannot control the ball, or read the game, you can be as fast as you want, but it does not make you a better or more reliable player.

"That is not to say that you do not need athletic basics and a certain standard of pace. But whatever your attributes, you need quality to cope with the Premier League, or the Bundesliga, whatever league you are playing in. But you cannot underestimate how high the value of experience in football is."

Carragher has plenty of that, dealing with problems on the pitch and criticism off it. The last half a decade, under the tutelage of Benítez and beside the experience of Hyypia, has provided welcome respite from the doubts which circled the boy from Bootle early in his career.

Yet the fact that his name became a byword for solidity, reliability and courage seems to have been forgotten after a shaky start to the season. Carragher has looked nervy and exposed as his fullbacks, Glen Johnson and Emiliano Insua, raid forward, dragging Liverpool's defensive line further upfield and away from their vice-captain's comfort zone.

Carragher, unquestionably, is at his best with his back to the wall. He thrives, like Terry, in his role as lion-in-chief, exhorting and encouraging, delighting in his heroics. The old dog has found it difficult to learn the new trick of adapting to life as part of a team wielding the cosh, rather than resisting it.

It was the space behind Johnson, behind Carragher, which Hines exploited to such devastating effect at Upton Park and that Stevan Jovetic made the most of in Florence last week.

With Martin Skrtel, his usually impeccable partner, struggling to rediscover the form which made him one of Benítez's most accomplished performers last season, Daniel Agger injured and Sotiris Kyrgiakos limited, Carragher has had to endure his poor form without backup. The vultures, circling, have swooped.

Hyypia, though, provides solace for his erstwhile team-mate. Now 35, the Finn has left the comfortable surrounds of Anfield for a new life at a Bayer Leverkusen side enjoying a bright start to a typically open Bundesliga season. While he admits the quality is not as high as the top four or five in England, the football is still fast and athletic.

"It shows I was right to think I could still play at the highest level," says Hyypia. "I have not changed the way I play as I have got older. I have always played like Sami Hyypia, and I am still capable of doing my job every week."

Carragher, four years his junior, and Terry, a further three years younger, can take heart. Their days are far from numbered.

Kuyt Surprised By Pennant Blast

Liverpool star Dirk Kuyt has expressed his surprise after being criticised by former team-mate Jermaine Pennant.

Pennant left Anfield on a free transfer to join Real Zaragoza in the summer after three seasons with the Reds.

He recently blasted Kuyt - who took Pennant's place in Benitez's side - labelling the Dutchman as a failed forward who was accommodated in the team because of his high transfer fee.

While Reds boss Rafa Benitez has since leapt to Kuyt's defence, the Dutchman himself refuses to get into a war of words.

He told the News of the World: "I have nothing bad to say about him.

"It's up to Jermaine what he says but I always enjoyed having him as a team-mate so I was surprised by what he said."

Liverpool take on Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Sunday and Kuyt insists he will be fully focused on the job in hand.

He said: "When I step on the pitch I don't think about anything except winning the game and enjoying myself as much as possible.

"We've done well, played some unbelievable games and gone really close, but we know we have to do more and push even harder.

"We've consistently shown we can beat the best teams in the Premier League, especially last season. Now we have to show it again."