James Lawton: Rampant Chelsea in league of their own

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Maybe we should say they simply returned to that sphere after last week's utterly unambitious contribution to the goalless Champions' League draw here.

What isn't in doubt is that Benitez, after his spectacular start last season, cannot hope to wage serious war against the Chelsea empire with his current manpower. The flaws that were so evident in Premiership performances last season became great fissures long before the end of this game, and into them fell two of the heroes of Istanbul last spring. Neither Sami Hyypia nor Djimi Traoré can expect to survive for too long their shortcomings in a match in which Liverpool's credibility as serious challengers, as much as their morale, was at stake.

Traoré was swamped by Didier Drogba in the concession of the first goal, attempting to clear sloppily and then haplessly conceding a penalty. Hyypia was left for dead by the man from the Ivory Coast, as he is dismayingly often now when involved in man-to-man combat, and the resulting goal by Damien Duff was a formality. Between them, Traoré and Hyypia had turned to dust the optimism sparked by Steven Gerrard's equaliser, a fierce shot after some pressure largely inspired by the passing of Xabi Alonso. Nor did it help that the maverick qualities of Luis Garcia were completely lost in another tide of whimsy and lost possession.

It meant that comparisons between the champions of Europe and those of England could hardly have been more extreme.

Chelsea made them so by merely re-establishing a cutting edge to the relentless control and professionalism that has already carried them into the middle distance of the Premiership race. Inevitably, their mastery was shot through with a sense of mockery, both on the field and the terraces. It was inevitable because that advantage they have in so many crucial areas of the game had perhaps rarely been so evident against opposition which might just have believed in their ability to push forward from such a recent points victory.

That conviction was fragile by half-time. At the finish it was made of matchwood. By then of course Mourinho was demanding respect, which seemed a little gratuitous in view of his power in the marketplace and the reality of the season's performance. What he cannot ask for, at least in the foreseeable future, is the affection of the neutral. This will surely be so as long as his team are content to profit most by the imperfections of their opponents than the sheer strength of their own resources.

There is never any shortage of fresh examples, as we saw yesterday when Hernan Crespo lurked on the bench while £24m Drogba, having recently explored the outer limits of futility, produced a performance of sustained relevance and bite. Apart from exposing Traoré and Hyypia so brutally, he played a part in all four goals. He was testy, at times downright disagreeable, but there was never a time when his presence did less than blaze.

This is the supreme beauty, from Chelsea's perspective, of the vast pool of talent. Joe Cole mostly flittered through the action, so when Mourinho's patience ran thin, he called on Arjen Robben, the £21m Shaun Wright-Phillips not having made the bench.

Here we have, perhaps, the basis of Benitez's next consultation with the Anfield board. The European Cup has been delivered, a fact which on this afternoon seemed even more of a fantasy, but it is going to remain one of the anomalies of the game right up to the moment of proper investment by Liverpool. Benitez was not exactly coy about his needs in the close season. The priorities remain in defence and genuine width in attack, and they may be joined soon enough by the need for more impact in front of goal. Peter Crouch once again announced some extraordinary potential in his outlandish frame, not least when he turned beautifully on Ricardo Carvalho in the second half. That might have resulted in an early goal of the season contender if Crouch had not been hurried into his shot by one of those trademark saving charges by John Terry.

It was just one of the Chelsea announcements that they were in no mood to grant quarter to any opposition - and least of all to a team who had dared to challenge their stranglehold on English football.

Anfield was crushed. It will take some time for it to recover - and almost certainly rather a lot of money.