James Lawton: Benitez's 'phoney champions' turn heat on Mourinho

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Liverpool beat Chelsea everywhere except in the scoreline last night. They grew before our eyes as they marched to a scoreless slaughter of the team which is supposed to be squeezing the life out of all their rivals.

Chelsea did not do much squeezing here. Instead, they revealed only their most enduring strength, deep and relentless defence. Liverpool will surely relish the chance of another assault on Sunday.

Before the start Mourinho and his rival Rafael Benitez chatted so amiably on the touchline you would never have thought they were fresh from a bout of intense psychological warfare - or that Mourinho carries enough wounds from last season's Champions' League semi-final defeat here to fuel a full-scale Sicilian vendetta. The niceties were only briefly observed, however. Within minutes both teams were looking as though they had just been preached hellfire.

So intense was much of the first-half action Italian referee Massimo de Santis seemed to be playing by those Palermo rules; the ones that say if you live by ruthless action you cannot complain that you may die of it. What you do is simply get on with it and Liverpool and Chelsea did this so vigorously it was remarkable that De Santis booked only Xabi Alonso, for a relatively mild burst of shirt-grabbing on Didier Drogba, and Claude Makelele for a rather more blood-chilling lunge at Steven Gerrard.

This established the referee's impartiality, at least to a degree that quietened some of the early complaints from the terraces. This rumbling would return, however, when Liverpool convinced themselves they should have been awarded two penalties, and the fact that three Chelsea players found their way into the book after half-time was scarcely deemed adequate compensation.

What emerged quickly enough and beyond dispute was that here we had another intriguing stage of something that is building into a genuine collision of will and insight by two of Europe's most successful coaches. Benitez and Mourinho confess to a genuine liking, which is not so hard to understand; they may be opposites in many ways, but they share a passionate distaste for yielding a point. It meant that if Anfield was some way from the surreal tensions of last spring, when Benitez's men fought their way to Istanbul and that unforgettable final, it again had an authentic edge of the hardest competition.

Liverpool, given Chelsea's daunting reputation for the clinical riposte, were surprisingly bold, with Djibril Cissé running wide and strongly and Peter Crouch on several occasions showing that his height advantage and deceptive ability to control the ball on the ground were accompanied by a marauding spirit. The result was at times a game of chess played by bruisers.

There were some beautiful passages too, and not least when Alonso twice robbed Drogba, legally and smoothly, and turned defence into attack with great delicacy just before half-time. This was a persuasive moment. It seemed to release Liverpool from some of their deeper concerns about playing with any ultimate freedom against Chelsea's orchestrated defence, one with a deadly capacity to strike out with extreme menace.

Certainly, they applied fierce pressure on Petr Cech's goal. Luis Garcia, again as much profligate as menacing, suddenly hit a vein of consistently relevant aggression along the left and he came closest to breaking the deadlock when demanding a dive at his feet from the Chelsea goalkeeper. A moment later some of Mourinho's smouldering belief that much of the world is conspiring against him must have cooled a little when the referee completely missed William Gallas's handling of a header by Jamie Carragher.

Liverpool had earlier claimed, with some justice, that Drogba should also have been penalised when he brought down Sami Hyypia as he charged on to a deftly headed pass by Crouch, who soared above the Chelsea cover to meet a cross from Steve Finnan. It was another nudge towards a moral ascendancy which became a little more pronounced with each fiercely disputed exchange.

For Benitez there was always the fear of one of those branded, killing Chelsea strikes, but that is the universal concern of all who go against the tank-trap wiles of Mourinho's men. It is a challenge that has to be waged with some courage, and there were times when Liverpool did it with the nerve that you might expect from the champions of Europe.

This is a status that has provoked some sneers from Mourinho. Last night, however, he had plenty of time, and plenty of reason, to think again. Liverpool, with some genuine creativity in midfield from Alonso, Gerrard and Dietmar Hamann, were more than phoney champions. They were maybe a team with an unfolding future as much as a freakish past.

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