Gerrard's calamity signals the beginning of the end

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The Independent Football

Events of the past week, both on and off the field, clearly suggested to some people that the rug was beginning to move ever so slightly beneath Jose Mourinho's feet, but Chelsea's response was a convincing reminder that spirit is the most valuable commodity fostered by their manager.

Of course, the Carling Cup, presented colourfully to Chelsea after a hard-fought final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, was not at the forefront of Mourinho's priorities when he set off on the great adventure in English football.

However, he has broken the ice; now there is renewed confidence to go on and consolidate their thrust at the top of the Premiership and advance in the Champions' League when they renew their encounter with Barcelona in 10 days' time.

Maintaining his reputation for controversy, Mourinho was required to watch the victory unfold on a television monitor after being sent from the touchline for placing a finger on his lips in the direction of Liverpool supporters. Dignity is not one of Mourinho's strong points, but banishment would have taken nothing away from his satisfaction.

Make no mistake, this was a hard-won victory; carrying for more than an hour the possibility that Chelsea, for all their possession, would be unable to break down Liverpool's stubborn resistance after going a goal down with only 45 seconds on the clock, when John Arne Riise volleyed home a cross from Fernando Morientes.

Liverpool's policy of playing five men in midfield served to suffocate Chelsea's providers, their failed efforts underlining the value of Arjen Robben, whose injury at Blackburn caused him to miss last week's FA Cup defeat at Newcastle and the midweek loss in Barcelona.

Some of the midfield challenges, particularly by Steven Gerrard, were completely in the traditional context of a cup tie, and much depended on the involvement of a player who could easily leave Liverpool in the summer to join yesterday's conquerors.

Chelsea were failing to find a way through the heart of Liverpool's defence, where Sami Hyypia stepped up with a commanding presence whenever Chelsea moved in on his penalty area. As a consequence, Mourinho's side reached half-time still struggling to find their rhythm.

The interval saw the introduction of Eidur Gudjohnsen; and he was immediately involved, forcing Jerzy Dudek in the Liverpool goal to make a near-post save, then blocking a follow-up shot from William Gallas.

Liverpool were now conceding so much space - leaving Morientes to toil on his own up front - that the game took on the nature of a siege as Chelsea poured on attack after attack, with Damien Duff at last finding the room to manoeuvre beyond Liverpool's flanks.

It seemed that Liverpool simply could not find a way out of their own half and they had to repel incessant attacks as the game drew into the closing stages of normal time; then, finally, Liverpool's goal fell. Frank Lampard sent in a free-kick, awarded against Dietmar Hamann, and the ball flicked off the top of Gerrard's head for a calamitous own goal that would extend the match into extra time.

Immediately after the restart Didier Drogba struck the foot of a post, while at the other end Igor Biscan headed over.

It was still anybody's match, but Liverpool, despite Gerrard's urging and the willingness of Luis Garcia, could not adequately break out of the defensive mode into which they had settled for most of the game.

Then, after 107 minutes of play, Chelsea began to exert the grip that would bring a first trophy for, among others, their captain, John Terry, and Frank Lampard. Neither had anything to show from their careers so far, so it was fitting they should both emerge as influential figures.

The goal, however, was manufactured by one of Chelsea's three substitutes, Glen Johnson, whose long throw from the right was forced in at the near post by Drogba.

Liverpool's legs were now beginning to go. The tactics shaped by their manager, Rafael Benitez, had carried them to within 11 minutes of victory - a victory that would have brought with it the conviction that Liverpool are progressing along the right lines under their Spanish manager.

Seven-times winners of the League Cup in its various forms, Liverpool brought plenty to the occasion - not least their stubbornness when under heavy pressure. It was not enough, however, to keep Chelsea from their first prize under Mourinho's command.

One of Chelsea's summer signings, Mateja Kezman, has had a lean time this season, failing to build on his reputation as a goalscorer, yet it was he who finally put the game beyond Liverpool's reach with a third goal for the Londoners.

Still, Liverpool refused to surrender, and a goal from Antonio Nunez brought fleeting hope that they could take the proceedings into the lottery of a penalty shoot-out.

Chelsea were nervous enough to protest vigorously when the ball entered their net; but Liverpool simply did not have enough to take events any further.

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