Mourinho hurt by the one that got away

Click to follow
The Independent Football

The one piece of treble silverware that eluded Chelsea last season has now taken permanent residence in the Anfield museum, and Liverpudlians did not hesitate to respond to every visiting chant of "Champions" with the add-on "of Europe" as the teams renewed Continental hostilities.

But retaining possession of the second prize Chelsea craved from Liverpool - the ball - was the fundamental reason why Rafael Benitez's team were able to frustrate the so-called Invincibles once again last night.

The only way Anfield emotions could have stirred as memorably as the evening Luis Garcia's shot ignited as much analysis as the ones fired by Lee Harvey Oswald would have been had Steven Gerrard been playing in the No 5 shirt of Chelsea rather than the No 8 for Liverpool.

But for the dramatic change of heart that changed the course of two clubs' summers, it would have been so, and those fearing the demise of genuine competitiveness in our League should be thankful for it.

Rejected, for once, Chelsea turned their £24.4m focus on Lyon's Ghanaian inspiration Michael Essien, though it could have been far worse. "I heard they wanted us both," admitted the 22-year-old before kick-off.

Gerrard, defensively disciplined throughout both semi-final legs with Chelsea last season, was given licence to attack last night, a policy that drew illegal retribution from Frank Lampard, who escaped a booking for a late foul on his England colleague's ankles, and Claude Makelele, who did not.

Both Benitez and Mourinho prefer their players "between the lines" rather than standing firm in a 4-4-2 but with the Chelsea midfield trio performing more perfunctory duties last night, as an away team in Europe would, the only member of that vaunted department who attacked at will was Gerrard.

He was the reason for Liverpool's second-half edge, and the source of the pass of the night in the first half when he released Djibril Cissé down the inside-left channel with an instinctive 50-yard ball on the turn.

This was Gerrard's best performance against Chelsea since their interest in him first materialised at Euro 2004. No coincidence. "I thought I did OK against Chelsea last season but I wouldn't say I was at my best in all the games," he said. "Speculation sometimes affected my focus. But that's all gone now. I've put all that behind me and now all I'm thinking about is playing my best football."

Whether he would have enjoyed his football as much at Chelsea, however, is open to question. Mourinho beckoned Essien to the touchline after half an hour and berated him for straying too far away from his restrictive box on the right.

Lampard gradually retreated as Liverpool began to improve and struggled to respond, finally receiving a yellow card for a challenge on Cissé and fortunate not to escape further punishment when he lost Florent Sinama-Pongolle on the touchline in the 83rd minute.

The striker's cross was hacked clear, another symbol of a game rich on promise but low on incident and one that, thanks to Gerrard, indicated the gulf between these teams is not as great as the League table suggests.