All signs say Chelsea but are Liverpool on the road to destiny?

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The Independent Football

It's a nagging suspicion that should probably shuffle off into the ether, but, sorry, it will not. It says Liverpool cannot only frustrate the power brokers of Chelsea tonight but pass through to the final of the Champions' League - and then, convinced of their destiny, win it.

It's a nagging suspicion that should probably shuffle off into the ether, but, sorry, it will not. It says Liverpool cannot only frustrate the power brokers of Chelsea tonight but pass through to the final of the Champions' League - and then, convinced of their destiny, win it.

According to Gary Lineker, Chelsea have unanswerable claims, at least on this penultimate stage of the competition, and no doubt few sound judges would argue with his ratings of the two teams, which gave an avalanche of a points advantage to Jose Mourinho's men. Certainly the evidence accumulated in their favour is formidable.

Apart from all their other accomplishments, including the spectacular ransacking of Barcelona, they have three straight wins over Rafael Benitez's team, who on Saturday were almost as fragile at Crystal Palace as in defeat at Southampton - a loss Lineker's television colleague Alan Hansen rated the worst performance he had seen from his old club.

But then that collapse came shortly before an almost equally abject display at Newcastle, a team against whom it is not so easy to lose. A few days later Liverpool confounded Juventus, attacking them at Anfield and then producing epic containment in Turin. There is something about Liverpool, something mysterious, unfathomable. Defenders like Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia touched sublime levels of resistance against Juve. They were shot through with belief.

The most relevant point about Liverpool and their hopes tonight is that there is simply no correlation between their performance in the Premiership and the Champions' League. In the Premiership, Benitez, under the weight of sickening injuries and the limitations of his squad, has tried to eke his way to fourth place and Champions' League qualification while holding back major players for the European action. It has been a compromise that appears to have failed in its first objective. However, in the Champions' League we have seen a masterpiece of tactical acumen and practicality.

It is because of this, plus the huge factor of Xabi Alonso, that genuine hope can be extended at Stamford Bridge tonight.

Alonso, according to Liverpool icon Ian St John, is now the club's most important player. "This is no disrespect to Steven Gerrard. We know the impact he can have," says The Saint. "But Alonso is a genuine midfielder, who can use the ball so brilliantly, and can keep the team ticking over. At Stamford Bridge the value of this is potentially huge."

Yes, Alonso, the man who was stretching Chelsea to their seams at Anfield on New Year's Day when he was cut down by a sliding tackle from Frank Lampard, is both a key element tactically... and a talisman. With his ankle broken, he was ruled out of the season by a heartbroken Benitez. But against Juventus earlier this month, with just 45 minutes of action behind him, he was superb, as much in his spirit as his accomplishment. Tonight Alonso has to seize Stamford Bridge, show that he is indeed a throwback to the old days of creative midfielders who stitched together a team performance.

Gerrard, surely, will be seen by Benitez as his principal shock troop, a man whose strength and potential to explode will be a permanent caution on Chelsea.

Another encouragement for Liverpool, with Luis Garcia recently showing that his waspish presence can generate moments of authentic devastation, is that no point in their trail of three defeats by Chelsea did they appear to be over-matched. Indeed, on the day that Alonso was struck down, Chelsea also benefited from one of the season's worst refereeing decisions when Tiago plainly handled the ball in the penalty area. Liverpool had been playing with patience and considerable touch.

In the Carling Cup final Mourinho's team were clearly the better but would they have prospered but for Gerrard's own goal? In football such patterns are always waiting to be broken, and the belief here is that Liverpool have the means to do it. Chelsea have so much, of course, strength, superb application, fine talent - the return of Arjen Robben is a huge injection of menace - and behind the virtue of three contenders for player of the year, the winner, John Terry, Frank Lampard and Petr Cech, is the will of Mourinho. Of course, they are favourites, but when you say all of that, the suspicion that whispers Liverpool still refuses to go away.

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