Chelsea given a free hand

Cole keeps the leaders flying high but Liverpool fume at referee Riley's blind eye to Tiago's hand
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The Independent Football

It will not be the hardest date to remember, and if Chelsea are asked in May to reflect on the victory after which they truly believed that the title would be theirs, then surely their 1-0 win against Liverpool at Anfield yesterday was it.

The detail will say that Joe Cole's goal in the 80th minute, after he had come on as a substitute five minutes earlier, secured the three points that kept them five points clear of Arsenal - who beat Charlton 3-1 - although Liverpool will ask you to recall an incident that will rankle until season's end.

It came with the home side in the ascendancy during a first half in which the hectic Christmas schedule seemed to have emptied even Chelsea's reserves. A Steven Gerrard free-kick fizzed across the box in the 39th minute towards Antonio Nunez. Tiago's hand blatantly deflected the ball away but rather than whistle for a penalty, the referee, Mike Riley, waved play on. Liverpool were incensed, not only at the decision but also at the fact that in the seconds after Tiago's "handball", Riley had put the whistle to his lips. Their mood was not improved when Riley claimed he had merely been anticipating blowing for another infringement.

Jose Mourinho, the Chelsea manager, refused to enter the argument, taking the Wenger route and saying, "I didn't see it", although he and Riley must have been the only people at Anfield who didn't. Rafael Benitez, the Liverpool manager, certainly did, although all he would say was "the evidence is on the videotape".

It was evidence of a wholly different nature that Mourinho was more interested in, that of Chelsea's credentials to be champions. To be so thoroughly outplayed in the first half and yet still summon the spirit to claim the win was testimony to his team's courage and belief. "Chelsea lost a few games last season to rule them out of the title chase, and maybe some people believed that might happen again," he said. "Today showed to Arsenal and Manchester United that they will have to fight and keep on playing well, and that even then it will be difficult for them." It was not all bravado, though. He was honest enough to admit that Liverpool were good for a point, but maintained that Chelsea were getting everything their resilience deserved. "This was a match for men, a match for strong characters," he said.

But even the strongest man on Merseyside might have been forgiven a quivering of the bottom lip last night, especially when it emerged that after a Frank Lampard foul, Xabi Alonso, the Spanish midfielder, had suffered a broken ankle and will be out for at least six weeks. A cruel end to a cruel New Year's Day.

Arsenal were in familiar rhythm with Freddie Ljungberg scoring twice and Robin van Persie once at Charlton. And with Manchester United winning 2-0 at Middlesbrough it is as you were at the top.

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