Liverpool 2 Chelsea 0: Benitez's master plan reveals Chelsea's lack of hunger in title fight

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By the time Ricardo Carvalho placed a thermometer under his tongue on Saturday morning Rafael Benitez was behind his desk at Liverpool's training complex to finalise the plot that would procure a first League victory over Jose Mourinho and expose the true impact of internal division on the reigning Premiership champions.

Had he an inkling that this would be the day when the once indomitable spirit of Chelsea would plummet with inverse proportion to the mercury in their defender's mouth, the Liverpool manager may have spared himself the early dart from the family home across the Mersey.

Anfield has featured prominently in Chelsea's richest chapter, providing Roman Abramovich with his first taste of the Premiership in August 2003, Mourinho with confidence in the club's first League title for 50 years on New Year's Day 2005 and his first encounter with Champions' League deflation three months later.

Today it basks as the setting for, if not the meekest performance of the Mourinho era, then certainly the display when their belief and hunger for the fight ebbed lower than at any point since the Portuguese manager arrived to take charge at Stamford Bridge and turned his squad to face the world.

A first League defeat in 13 fixtures is no confirmation of freefall, nor can a team without their three central defenders become a model of resilience overnight, but there was a fragility about Chelsea on Saturday that mocked declarations that, contrary to reports, Stamford Bridge was still driving in the same direction.

"When I heard Ricardo couldn't play," Mourinho said of losing Carvalho to a virus before the match, "I saw in the faces of my players and it was easy to understand what was going on in their souls." Surrender? With the honourable exceptions of the returned goalkeeper Petr Cech, Michael Essien and Didier Drogba, that is how it appeared.

Only a month ago, and less than a mile from Anfield, the champions - without Cech and again without John Terry - retrieved a deficit against Everton through sheer force of will. One week later they chiselled another late win at Wigan. Now, after the draws and the disquiet, an unwillingness to accept responsibility for mistakes has dripped from Abramovich to Mourinho and down on to the players, with no one illustrating that point better than Michael Ballack.

When Chelsea craved example from their few remaining men of status the Germany captain delivered a performance so lacking in purpose, energy and interest as to be indebted to the Ukrainian striker Andrei Shevchenko for again masquerading as a diversion. Shevchenko remained on the sidelines for 73 minutes while the visitors flustered against Liverpool's back-line, but it was Ballack - having paid for his former club Chemnitz to re-hire a sacked physiotherapist last week - who donated nothing to Chelsea.

While the midfielder strolled through the motions - a little run here, a stretch there, but nothing too strenuous - Paulo Ferreira filled the central defensive void as though plucked from a career in accountancy rather than as a £13.2m right-back asked to step 20 yards inside.

The Portuguese international panicked the moment a straightforward pass from Geremi arrived at his feet in the opening seconds, and the accident did not wait long to happen when he stumbled in pursuit of a Peter Crouch header and allowed Dirk Kuyt to half-volley inside Cech in only the fourth minute.

Mourinho's injury list validates his pleas for defensive reinforcement, although Abramovich was not present to witness this copper-bottomed argument due to business commitments in Russia, but it is also what a manager conjures with depleted resources that determines his claim to a special reputation. As Anfield was quick to point out, Benitez has already delivered in that respect.

"Mourinho's a good manager with experience, with character," insisted his rival for second place. "When you have these problems you must show you are a good manager. I think he will. He's doing a very good job. We should be happy in our jobs because we both love football. Some people have more problems than us."

This was not the glowing endorsement it may seem from Benitez, however. He added: "Some people always say they didn't have this player or that player. In our first season, we had something like 10 injuries and we were losing games, but there were no excuses. We kept going."

And Liverpool won the Champions' League. How Mourinho would savour a repeat and such an emphatic riposte to those who seek to undermine him now.

The Liverpool manager was at Melwood by "8.30am, analysing the small details", and the instruction to bombard Chelsea's weakness with quick, diagonal balls would have produced a more emphatic victory but for misses by John Arne Riise, Kuyt and Crouch, who also failed to convert after the Norwegian almost broke the crossbar from 40 yards. Not that Anfield was in fear of its own wastefulness. Jermaine Pennant chose a fine time and a fabulous way to score his first Liverpool goal when he volleyed over Cech from 25 yards and Chelsea's response induced only laughter from the home terraces as Drogba found the roof of the Kop with his only chance and Ballack allowed a dangerous short free-kick to squirm between his legs.

"If we maintain this form we'll be closer to Manchester United as well as Chelsea," warned Benitez. At least Mourinho is becoming accustomed to glancing over his shoulder.

Goals: Kuyt (4) 1-0; Pennant (18) 2-0.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Agger, Aurelio; Pennant, Alonso, Gerrard, Riise; Kuyt (Gonzalez, 90), Crouch (Bellamy, 85). Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Hyypia, Fowler.

Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Cech; Geremi, Ferreira, Essien, Cole; Mikel (Shevchenko, 73); Kalou, Ballack, Lampard, Robben (Wright-Phillips, 21); Drogba. Substitutes not used: Hilario (gk), Morais, Diarra.

Referee: R Styles (Hampshire).

Booked: Chelsea Ferreira.

Man of the match: Kuyt.

Attendance: 44,245.