Football: Di Matteo seizes the moment

Chelsea 1 Liverpool 0
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The Independent Online
The most open title race for years widened further yesterday as Liverpool were dragged back towards the chasing pack by an eager Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Liverpool's lead is now down to two points and they have played more games than any of their rivals. Chelsea, always spirited and occasionally inspired, are five further points behind and still in the hunt.

The narrow line between success and failure was amply illustrated by a match which turned on the simple banality of a hamstring strain. Until Neil Ruddock reached down to clutch his right leg after half an hour Liverpool had been marginally the better of two uninspired sides. As so often, the identical 3-5-2 formations had created a midfield stalemate. Chelsea, with their 5-1 autumn drubbing at Anfield fresh in their minds, were wary of being caught with too many men forward. With Liverpool playing their customary game of patience the result was all pass and no penetration.

Then Ruddock went off to be replaced by Dominic Matteo. It might have been the sight of the usually intimidating figure of Ruddock limping off, or it might have been the travelling support's untimely barracking of Mark Hughes, but suddenly Chelsea, led by Hughes, upped the tempo.

Matteo, so good in that 5-1 win but now looking rusty, was turned by Gianfranco Zola and Hughes in quick succession. As arguments broke out among the Reds, Chelsea, encouraged, pressed.

With 44 minutes gone Stig Inge Bjornebye took possession just inside the Chelsea half, Dan Petrescu closed his space down and the Dane turned the ball back to Phil Babb. Zola pressured him so he rolled it square to Matteo. As Hughes charged in like an angry bull the youngster hurriedly passed forward to Michael Thomas. Thomas, continuing the theme, laid the ball back towards Mark Wright. But Thomas had passed blind, Roberto Di Matteo intercepted, strode towards goal, and calmly slid the ball past David James. One-nil.

"Passing it about is the principle of our game and occasionally it catches us out," Roy Evans, the Liverpool manager, said. "It was a sloppy goal. Mickey's played a bad ball but he could have had a shout."

"He anticipated the pass," Ruud Gullit, Evans' counterpart, said. "It was a game which was to depend on small details, small mistakes."

Gullit had made two interesting decisions before the game. He decided against man-marking Steve McManaman, and he left himself out. Both were proved right, just. The midfield was so crowed that, apart from the opening minutes, McManaman was not able to run with the ball and played much of the game too deep. Gullit's own presence was not missed until the later stages when his calm distribution would have helped a defence which was beginning to hoof the ball away aimlessly.

That was after Patrik Berger had come on to add sharpness to Liverpool's passing game. With his first touch he could have created a goal, slipping the ball through for Stan Collymore. But Collymore pulled the ball wide.

Liverpool had had chances. Frode Grodas denied Robbie Fowler and John Barnes at close range and Collymore shot over. Chelsea, too, had chances, with David James saving from Zola and Di Matteo and Petrescu hitting the side-netting.

With Berger's introduction Liverpool switched to 4-4-2. Gullit, seeing his team outmanoeuvred, responded in kind and also came close to immediate reward as his substitute, Dennis Wise, played in Hughes on the right. A trademark volley followed, which James touched on to the bar. As Wise dived for the rebound, Jason McAteer hacked it away.

As the teams tired more half-chances came at both ends but none were taken.

Liverpool's frustration was summed up by Fowler. Still simmering after having an optimistic first-half penalty appeal turned down, he pushed Franck LeBoeuf, put his feet up to Grodas, and was booked. At the end, as at half-time, he was dragged away from the referee by a steward. There is a long way to go but, already, nerves are fraying.

Chelsea (3-5-2): Grodas; Duberry, LeBoeuf, Clarke; Petrescu, Burley, Newton, Di Matteo, Minto (Wise, 73); Zola, Hughes. Substitutes not used: Gullit, Myers, Sinclair, Hitchcock (gk).

Liverpool (3-5-2): James; Wright (Berger, 66), Ruddock (Matteo, 35), Babb; McAteer, Thomas, Barnes, McManaman, Bjornebye; Fowler, Collymore. Substitutes not used: Kennedy, Jones, Warner (gk).

Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).