The beautiful game? Hmmm. At half-time they paraded Peter Osgood - "the king of Stamford Bridge". Next to Roman Abramovich in the West Stand boxes sat Gianfranco Zola. On the pitch Chelsea played Liverpool. A meeting of the Premiership's two most successful sides at present. League champions versus European Cup winners. Poetry in the soul. Or a piece of doggerel.
It was summed up by the sending-off. A rash challenge by Jose Reina on Eidur Gudjohnsen, down by the touchline but then a verbal intervention by Arjen Robben. The goalkeeper raised his hand. The winger threw himself to the turf. The referee - who was going to book him - showed red.
Rafael Benitez was incensed. "I'm in a hurry," the Liverpool manager said afterwards, "because I must go to the hospital. The incident was so serious that maybe he [Robben] will be in the hospital for one week. It is crazy. Reina has made a mistake because Robben was talking to him and he touched his face. Maybe he will be in the hospital for three weeks with a broken neck." It was an angry, bitter reaction. "After that [William] Gallas goes against Reina," Benitez said, referring to the reaction of the Chelsea defender whose arms were also out. "I think Robben has dived. What kind of professional can you be against another professional."
Jose Mourinho wouldn't be drawn. "I'm not interested in what Benitez is saying," the Chelsea manager replied, simply confirming the all too apparent animosity between the two teams, "because I have just finished a game, a big game, a game that we played very well, should have won three, four zero."
Maybe. The dismissal was the most depressing incident of a game that did little to lift the spirits. There were others. Fifteen minutes before his involvement with Reina and Robben, 20 yards inside the Liverpool half, checked, chipped it back to John Terry the other side of the half-way line. Terry ferried it to Asier Del Horno, back it went to Petr Cech, who punted it forward. Chelsea were ahead, drawing Liverpool in. It was nasty stuff. A player of the sublime quality of Xabi Alonso was dragged into rash challenges, a running battle with Frank Lampard and was then seen imploring the referee Alan Wiley to book the substitute Lassana Diarra after a foul. The Spaniard was, in injury-time, cautioned himself for arguing.
No one expected an open game. Too much was at stake. Not in terms of the league race but in pride, rivalry - and the nature of both managers. Winning mentalities but, also, and first and foremost, a "don't lose" mentality. When Benitez talks in terms of building teams he uses analogies of tables, pens, lampshades and other bits of furniture. But it's all based on the most solid of foundations. Benitez acquired three players in the January transfer window - two defenders and the free transfer of the striker Robbie Fowler, who did not even go to yesterday's match as he was putting in extra training. The only cash involved was the £5.5m for the central defender Daniel Agger.
His philosophy has helped Liverpool to challenge Chelsea. In the raft of statistics that flow through the Premiership, the champions are dominant. Except for one. Liverpool equalled them for the number of clean sheets in the league. Until yesterday. Now the advantage is 14-13 to the champions. Once behind, Liverpool unravelled. Their game plan had been punctured and, for them, it was all the more maddening as their zonal defending was at fault for the first goal while Stephen Warnock was slow to keep the line for the second. "We know that if we score before them we have got conditions to do what we need to," Mourinho said.
That was achieved with a ruthless efficiency. It is awesome to behold at times because of its discipline but quite what Zola - and Osgood - made of it all is another matter. But their involvement with Chelsea was when they were winning cups, not, as Mourinho will doubtless point out, championships as well. Eight more wins, the manager said, and Chelsea will retain the title.Reuse content