Three successive draws do not constitute a crisis at any club, with the possible exception of Real Madrid, but such has been Chelsea's unerring consistency under Jose Mourinho that their captain and the man voted England's player of 2005, Frank Lampard, yesterday came close to issuing a fulsome apology for their failure to overcome Charlton, Everton and Aston Villa in the past fortnight.
The slip that United and Liverpool have longed for to ignite their own championship credentials has finally arrived and yet neither club has, despite repeated claims from Old Trafford in particular, taken advantage. Indeed, Chelsea extended their lead over second place to 15 points on Wednesday while United self-destructed at Blackburn and, according to Lampard, have a duty tomorrow to ensure their standards slip no further.
"We have set the standard in the Premiership for the last 18 months and the amount of wins we've had is on the way to record-breaking," said the Chelsea midfielder. "We expected ourselves to keep on winning but it doesn't always happen that way. There's no crisis or anything like that and against Liverpool we will be trying to make the gap at the top even bigger, but in the last few games we've not been as good as we can be and the same goes for myself. I'm looking forward to the games ahead to get the standard high and push on again. People have been surprised by the fact we've drawn two League games and one in the cup but if that's the standard we've set, then it can only be good."
Despite a 4-1 League victory at Anfield in October, the champions have found Benitez's team a persistent thorn in recent seasons, in Europe especially, with two outstanding defences and the midfielders, Lampard and Steven Gerrard, cancelling each other out. Yet the former insists: "It's a bigger game for them than us because they are trying to close the gap."
Tomorrow's trip to west London marks the start of a demanding schedule for Liverpool who have played more fixtures than any other club this season due to the Champions' League qualifiers and Club World Championship. Seven games in 21 days will, according to their manager, determine whether there can be a genuine title challenge, FA Cup success or a European Cup repeat. Despite playing their 40th game of the campaign against Birmingham in midweek, Benitez has banished talk of fatigue.
"If we talk about it a lot then we will be more tired," he argues. "If some of them are tired then we will try to use others, but Agger, Kromkamp and Fowler can keep up the pressure on the other players."
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