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Premier League

Absence of Torres hampers Benitez's goal at the Bridge

When the crunch comes for Chelsea against Liverpool, it is usually the European Cup at stake. For four successive seasons the clubs have come together in the Champions' League, usually at a crucial stage. Last spring was the first time Chelsea had had the better of those matches, which meant that Jose Mourinho, who had departed by then, never did.

In the Premier League, it has been a different story, Rafael Benitez having recorded a single victory in eight meetings, by 2-0 at Anfield two seasons ago, when the visitors, short of defenders (in every sense), were demolished by Peter Crouch. At Stamford Bridge, where they return this afternoon, Liverpool have never even managed a goal in the League during Benitez's time. Today they are second among equals, though only on goal difference, having matched Chelsea's start to the campaign point for point and suggesting that at last there may be a real title challenge within them.

Not that the manager dares say as much at this early stage, even if he is prepared to acknowledge the improvement suggested by inflicting a League defeat at last on Manchester United a month ago. Anfield celebrated that day as if the championship itself had been won for the first time since 1990. If it is to be, then Liverpool's record against the other members of the big four has to improve drastically.

"Too early to talk about the title," was Benitez's mantra when discussing the match on Friday. He did admit, however, that points won and lost in these critical meetings of the leading clubs – if Hull City will excuse the shorthand – can be decisive. So beatingUnited in only the fourth game of the season had mathematical as well as psychological value. "It was really important for us, because last season we were not winning these games so to beat United was a very, very positivemessage for the team," he said. "Now we will see what happens against Chelsea, but at least the team can approach these games with confidence."

They would be heading south even more confidently if Fernando Torres, scorer of 33 goals in his first season of English football, was a playing member of the party. His absence, and the knowledge that injury could also keep Robbie Keane out, must increase the possibility of one of the low-scoring, frequently dull encounters that the two teams tend to play at the Bridge, in contrast to Anfield, where the Kop rarely need to chant "Attack, attack, attack". Whether Keane or Dirk Kuyt (the more prolific scorer of the two at present) is the central striker, Steven Gerrard is likely to be behind him, as Benitez seeks the security of having both Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso holding in midfield in his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation.

Hugely frustrated as Liverpool are by Torres's injury, sustained on international duty, they must acknowledge that Chelsea's list of absentees is the more debilitating. Joe Cole, Michael Essien, Michael Ballack and Didier Drogba would be a fair old outfield quartet in a five-a-side team, yet none can turn out today.

At least Ricardo Carvalho is back alongside John Terry in central defence. It is not quite correct to describe the Portuguese as Chelsea's unsung hero, since the supporters regularly put his name to song in appreciation of his formidable qualities as a tackler and marker. As one of Portugal's stalwarts, Carvalho also came to appreciate the worth of Luiz Felipe Scolari some time before his current club-mates. "He's a strong man, tough, a fantastic coach and he likes to play to win," he said after the 1-0 victory over Roma in midweek. "He's still learning about the Premier League, a different competition for him. He likes to have the ball and pass the ball, and to be a little bit more adventurous.

"As a player you have to find the moment when to go, when to play," added Carvalho. "He likes to work the ball and every day he thinks about this, to get possession and get the moment to be dangerous."

Someone less loyal to Mourinho, who brought Carvalho to England with him from Porto, might have emphasised the more positive approach with which the Brazilian is delighting everyone at Stamford Bridge, including, most importantly, Roman Abramovich. Jose Bosingwa, another Portuguese, and Ashley Cole or Wayne Bridge on the left, have gained most from it in their freedom to attack down the flanks almost as wing-backs, contributing to the 19 Chelsea goals in eight League games.

Yet they have conceded only three. Those travelling to London today with hope in their heart would be more opti-mistic of turning the statistics round if only they had Torres on the pitch.