Football: Chelsea make their title pitch

Leboeuf and Goldbaek capitalise on new surface as Liverpool's Stamford Bridge blues deepen; Chelsea 2 Liverpool 1 Leboeuf (pen) 7 Owen 77 Goldbaek 38 Half- time: 2-0 Attendance: 34,822
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The Independent Online
NO GREEN CARPET treatment for Liverpool at Stamford Bridge yesterday. Just an exhibition of compelling, fluid football on their new lawn, laid at the behest of Gianfranco Zola and ordered by the chairman, Ken Bates, to aid their passing game, as Chelsea maintained a sustained championship challenge that is looking increasingly plausible. Only that defeat at Arsenal spoils an undefeated league run since the first day of the season, when Coventry were their conquerors.

So much for those who predicted the Londoners would falter with the absence of Pierluigi Casiraghi, Gustavo Poyet (who should be fit in a fortnight) and Brian Laudrup. Where Gianluca Vialli is concerned, no matter. They have discovered a Dane, Bjarne Goldbaek, at a touch over pounds 300,000, who has fitted neatly into his compatriot Laudrup's No 7 shirt and yesterday scored his third goal in two games, supplementing an early penalty opener from Franck Leboeuf - his fifth successful spot-kick of the season - as well as displaying an industry and vision that was a major contribution to his team's success. "He's playing really well," said Vialli. "He now knows what we expect from him when we haven't got the ball. I just hope he keeps doing the job."

Complacency is not in Vialli's character and, rather than dwell on the excellence of Goldbaek together with the merits of Marcel Desailly in defence and Dan Petrescu, the Italian is seeking further improvements. "We should have killed them off before the start," he said. "We had a lot of chances, but to do well we must be more clinical. We must improve our scoring percentage. Now the pitch is in such good condition, there are no excuses. It allows us to pass the ball around."

For Liverpool, yet to savour victory here in the Premiership, the spectacle of their players trooping off disconsolately at the final whistle is one that has been all too prevalent during a season in which they have lost eight away games.

Thirteen years ago Kenny Dalglish scored the winner here to secure yet another Liverpool championship. Maybe those days will never be recaptured, but this was simply not good enough for a club of their great stature and manager Gerard Houllier knows it. An early injury to the increasingly influential Vegard Heggem may not have helped the Liverpool cause, but that fact should be used in mitigation, not as evidence against prosecution.

"You were second best to everything," somebody suggested afterwards. "I think so," Houllier gave that little Gallic shrug, maybe wishing Roy Evans was present to divide the responsibility. "You've got to be realistic. They were better than us. We are not playing good football and when your leaders are not at their best, you suffer."

If those "leaders" he referred to included Robbie Fowler, the manager was right. The England striker muffed one first half chance and there was little evidence of a potent partnership with Michael Owen, who at least acquired some decent scoring positions, even if he only converted one 76th minute opportunity, presented by the Real Madrid-bound Steve McManaman.

The only amusement the travelling Liverpool fans derived was some ribald chants at the expense of Vialli's No 2, Graham Rix, who recently pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a 15-year-old girl and is awaiting sentence. However, Chelsea and Vialli are evidently standing by their assistant coach, and Bates even raised the issue in the matchday programme, writing that the club will not act or comment until the final outcome.

It all began very much as form suggested it would, with Chelsea establishing a lead after seven minutes. Zola cut into the area and his attempted cross was handled by Phil Babb. There were few protests from Liverpool when the referee Paul Durkin pointed to the spot, which provided Leboeuf with the chance to scored with aplomb. The visitors might have equalised during a period when Jamie Redknapp began to make incursions into the home rearguard but, somewhat against the run of play, Goldbaek reasserted the Blues' authority, converting a facile chance at the far post from a fine cross by Petrescu.

Houllier, though, was no doubt contemplating the fact that he was so unattended by any defenders he might have been suffering from an infectious disease.

After the interval, with Paul Ince by now replaced by Jean Michel Ferri, Owen cleverly fashioned an opening but nobody in red picked up his invitation in front of an open goal, but that was a rare foray for the visitors. Before the young England striker finally prised open the home defence 14 minutes from time, Goldbaek, Petrescu and Zola had all gone close to causing Liverpool further embarrassment.

There had also been time for Graeme Le Saux to display some of that typical petulance that can so mar his performances. He was cautioned for refusing to take a free-kick because he believed Robbie Fowler was encroaching. A few minutes later, Fowler was mystifyingly found lying clutching his head with Le Saux suspiciously close. After consulting a linesman at length, and then speaking to both players Mr Durkin took no further action.

Owen's goal regalvanised Liverpool, but they exhibited few signs of restoring the score to two apiece. Indeed, Chelsea might have profited further on the counter-attack. You can only admire Vialli's poise and ability to adapt his team to given circumstances. But he recognises that the toughest part is yet to come.

"You have to be physically and mentally very strong," he stressed. "You must have desire and spirit and self-belief for success."

To Chelsea's great advantage, there is probably no greater exponent of that than himself to set an example.