Tiago's touch of luck gives Chelsea look of champions

Liverpool 0 - Chelsea 1
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The Independent Football

On the seventh, eighth and ninth points of Christmas, Jose's blue love gave to him: a victory that had all the hallmarks of the champions-elect. Indeed, another win against Middlesbrough tomorrow will seal the 12 points of Christmas that would leave the Chelsea manager feeling as happy as a partridge in a pear tree. Or in one bearing enough sour grapes to make a large serving of humble pie.

This will then be served up to anyone who doubted Chelsea's durability over this hectic festive season - yes, you, Sir Alex - and any who questioned their resolve when they dared venture up the freezing North - yes, you, Sir Alex. Because Jose Mourinho's men answered both in the most emphatic style possible on Saturday lunchtime to maintain their five-point lead. Not with blinding skill, giddying panache or electrifying elegance, but with grit - truckloads and truckloads of grit.

To be honest, this was also mixed with a vanload of luck, but then as they're saying down the King's Road, if this happens to be the food of silverware, play on. And boy did they play on, after the Liverpool uprising had been slapped down and Joe Cole popped up as the substitute to claim the maximum return late on. Perhaps this was not the day to be reminding Anfield of that quaint new year's custom of a dark, handsome stranger dropping in some Cole. They'd had their embers wet upon enough by then, after all.

The dampener-in-chief was Mike Riley, who is earning something of a reputation as the referee who brings the big top crashing down on the Premiership's supposed marquee occasions. Two months ago, in that Manchester United-Arsenal rerun, he awarded a penalty to Wayne Rooney that so blatantly wasn't and here he reversed the trick by denying Liverpool a penalty that so blatantly was.

Tiago's hand rivalled Diego's for surreptitiousness when it flicked Steven Gerrard's free-kick off Antonio Nunez's head in the 39th minute. Riley even had his whistle in his mouth, but that was for something, "I thought was going to happen", he said, clearing up the matter like only a Yorkshireman could. Tunnel confrontations with officials should never be condoned, but Jamie Carragher's was more forgiveable than most.

The incident summed up a first half of what-should-have-beens for Liverpool, who for long periods made the visitors look decidely leaden. Until, that is, they reached the iron-clad Chelsea back four. But even the peerless John Terry and his co-defenders could not have ensured Chelsea's 15th clean sheet in 21 League games so far this season, without a sizeable dollop of good fortune.

"The luck of champions," Mourinho called it as he set about outlining exactly why this triumph was so important to Chelsea and their pursuers, but Rafael Benitez could just have easily called it "the luck of Liverpool". Today, he travels to Norwich on a depressingly empty coach, the aisles left vacant still further by Xabi Alonso's broken ankle that will put the Spanish midfielder on the sidelines for two months. "We are losing an important player seemingly every week now," Benitez said. "Maybe we need 30 players to cope."

Mourinho himself claims to have only 16 fit men at his disposal for the Teessiders' visit, although sympathy was not in abundance for the Portuguese manager when Cole's right-foot drive deflected off Carragher with 10 minutes remaining.

"Yes, we were very fortunate, my players had to fight to earn luck," he admitted. "There were a few fantastic individual defensive performances from us, but Liverpool were just as good. They had the same spirit and fight, they did not have any luck. It is fair to say that we have not had a harder match this season."

Ferguson's United will doubtless be seeking to update that claim when they go to Stamford Bridge for the first leg of the League Cup semi-final on Wednesday week. By then Frank Lampard will have returned from his one-match ban after picking up a fifth yellow for his crude challenge on Alonso. That match does not happen to be against the dangerous Middlesbrough but Scunthorpe, at home, on Saturday. The luck of champions? You said it, Jose.

Goal: Cole (80) 0-1.

Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Dudek; Finnan, Hyypia, Carragher, Traoré; Hamann, Alonso (Nunez, 27); Garcia, Gerrard, Riise (Mellor, 86); Sinama-Pongolle. Substitutes not used: Diao, Warnock, Harrison (gk).

Chelsea (4-3-2-1): Cech; Ferreira, Terry, Gallas, Johnson; Lampard, Makelele, Tiago; Duff (Cole, 76), Robben (Kezman, 83); Gudjohnsen (Drogba, 61). Substitutes not used: Cudicini (gk), Geremi.

Referee: M Riley (West Yorkshire).

Booked: Liverpool: Garcia, Hamann; Chelsea: Lampard, Johnson.

Man of the match: Terry.

Attendance: 43,886.

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