Chelsea 2 Liverpool 0: Crespo's crushing form and Reina red card hit Liverpool

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The Independent Online

By the time that the Liverpool goalkeeper Jose Reina went straight through the legs of Eidur Gudjohnsen and then slapped Arjen Robben in the face to ensure a red card, the battle for Rafael Benitez's team was already lost, the Premiership title as good as decided. The true picture of the balance of power between these sides did not lie in a petty stand-off nine minutes from time, but the awesome details of Chelsea's dominance.

The goals came from William Gallas and Hernan Crespo and they leave the Premiership champions 15 points clear of Manchester United in second place and 21 ahead of Liverpool. The European champions had their very last chance to slow the procession yesterday, but they ended simply adding their names to the long list of victims that have fallen by the way on Chelsea's march to the title.

The ankle injury he was dealt against West Ham on 2 January meant that Michael Essien never made the trip to the African Nations' Cup in Egypt and, with Ghana now eliminated, he is eligible to play for his club side once again. But it was far too convenient not to arouse suspicion that as the tournament draws to a close, Essien yesterday made his recovery from fitness just in time to face Liverpool.

Jose Mourinho will doubtless pass the credit to a medical department at Chelsea that is under intense pressure to rehabilitate players from injury as rapidly as possible - and the Ghana football federation will have little choice but to accept that verdict. The timing for them, however, will hurt the most. Essien came back into a team that has won just once in the three Premiership games they have played since his absence.

The final part of a drama in four acts involving these two clubs this season - unless they meet again in the Champions' League - and there was precious little sign that either Rafael Benitez or Jose Mourinho were about to liberate their sides from their strict tactical regime. Only one striker committed to attack in either side and two midfields packed with muscle, it was Liverpool who held the balance of power right up to the Chelsea's first goal on 34 minutes.

Peter Crouch was the man most likely to tip the game in Liverpool's favour, clattering into Petr Cech twice and, as is his way, full of apologies afterwards. Few strikers have the advantage of towering over John Terry when they wait for corner kicks and Crouch put the Chelsea captain under the kind of pressure to which he is not accustomed as well as bloodying the brow of Cech.

Terry did enough in the 24th minute to unsettle Crouch when he lunged at Sami Hyypia's knock-back across the face of the goal although the England defender was not at his composed best. Alongside Chelsea's owner, Roman Abramovich, in the best seats at Stamford Bridge, was Gianfranco Zola. He wore a broad grin every time the camera settled on him, Abramovich looked more pensive.

With good reason, because the impeccably drilled Liverpool team, constantly being reorganised by Benitez on the touchline, had locked Chelsea's two wingers, Joe Cole and Arjen Robben, in their own half. It was telling that when Cole finally broke free on the right and won a close decision on a corner that Liverpool's problems began and William Gallas scored 11 minutes before the break.

From the corner, Ricardo Carvalho won a difficult header at the back of the area and the ball fell to Gallas six yards out who, with his back to goal, hooked the ball back and into the net.

It was a blow that Liverpool scarcely deserved, and Stephen Warnock's slip two minutes later almost condemned them to defeat before the half was over. Cole seized on possession but, to the fury of Mourinho, struck his shot wide of the near post.

On the stroke of half-time, Hernan Crespo had a goal disallowed for offside to howls of protest from his team-mates towards the linesman, Gavin Ward, who, in appearance, looked closer to the age of the ball-boys than the players. The official stood his ground and replays revealed his decision to be absolutely correct.

Crouch failed to get on the end of a Gerrard cross and Cech pushed out a shot from the Liverpool captain, but as the away side's desperation increased it was Chelsea who strengthened their grip on the game. Robben went past Jamie Carragher, but Reina flicked his shot wide. In the 68th minute, Crespo timed his run on to the end of Asier Del Horno's flick and launched a perfectly executed volley into the far corner of Reina's net.

At two goals down, Benitez had no option but to switch his side's taut defensive formation into a 4-3-3 attacking system. Chelsea swept them away. Damien Duff came on and then off with what looked like a strain to his leg. Then, on 81 minutes, Reina chased Eidur Gudjohnsen out to the right wing and launched a clumsy tackle. As he was called over by the referee, Alan Wiley, the Spanish goalkeeper thrust a hand into the face of Robben, who made sure that he exploited the moment for all it was worth.

Down to 10 men, with Jerzy Dudek in goal, Liverpool crumbled. Only a fine saving tackle from Steven Gerrard stopped Robben as he broke into the area with one minute remaining. It was to the Liverpool captain that the home fans' taunts were aimed in the last few minutes of the game. Gerrard's Liverpool team may have made enormous progress under Benitez but they still have a distance to travel to catch Mourinho's Chelsea.

Goals: Gallas (34) 1-0; Crespo (68) 2-0; Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Cech; Gallas, Carvalho, Terry, Del Horno; Makelele (Diarra, 84); J Cole (Duf,f 74; Gudjohnsen, 79), Lampard, Essien, Robben; Crespo. Substitutes not used: Cudicini (gk), Huth.

Liverpool (4-4-1-1): Reina; Finnan, Hyypia, Carragher, Warnock; Gerrard, Sissoko (Cissé, 74), Alonso, Riise (Garcia, 61; Dudek, 84); Kewell; Crouch. Substitutes not used: Morientes, Traoré.

Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).

Booked: Chelsea Essien; Liverpool Garcia, Alonso. Sent off: Reina.

Man of the match: Carvalho.

Attendance: 42,316