It required Ray Wilkins to whisper in Carlo Ancelotti's ear that the Chelsea fans in the Anfield Road End were chanting for their manager to acknowledge them so, breaking out of his fraught concentration, the Italian turned to his left and waved merrily.
It might have been a small detail on a famous afternoon in the history of Chelsea but it signified an important shift in the status of Ancelotti. On the day that his team took a giant step towards winning their third Premier League title of the Roman Abramovich era, this was the moment that he stopped being just another Chelsea manager trying to emulate Jose Mourinho and looked more like a Chelsea manager in his own right.
The shadow Mourinho casts over Chelsea is long indeed, especially after his Internazionale team eliminated them from the Champions League this season and, since his departure in September 2007, no one has come close to replacing him in the hearts of the fans. They never embraced Avram Grant or Luiz Felipe Scolari. Guus Hiddink only got the love-in when he won the FA Cup at Wembley last May.
Ancelotti is now within touching distance of the Premier League and all his team need to do is win against Wigan Athletic at Stamford Bridge on Sunday to be sure of seeing off Manchester United. After three seasons of living under the yoke of Sir Alex Ferguson's dominance – not to mention that Champions League final defeat in Moscow in 2008 – they are back at the top of English football. The whole Abramovich project has been re-energised.
There could yet be one more extraordinary twist in this season – of course it was Wigan who beat Chelsea 3-1 in September – but by the manner in which Ancelotti's team saw off Liverpool you would not bet on it. Experienced, ruthless and well-drilled, they are not the kind of team to slip with one hand on the trophy. Suddenly with the finish line in sight they are looking formidable again.
They were the recipients of an extraordinary good turn yesterday when Steven Gerrard played the throughball for Didier Drogba to score the first goal for Chelsea on 33 minutes yesterday. It was reminiscent of Gerrard's horrendous Euro 2004 back-pass to Thierry Henry that led to France's penalty, and a similar gaffe against Arsenal two years later and it opened the way for Chelsea to win the game.
The immediate response was to think that Liverpool's captain was conspiring against United's 19th Premier League title but no one would seriously accuse Gerrard of that. Even Ferguson, interviewed before his side's win at Sunderland, conceded that mistakes "can happen" and to hear some of the vile abuse directed at Gerrard from the Chelsea fans was to know there was no way he was doing them any favours.
In reality, Liverpool were never likely to win this game. The chaos over Rafael Benitez's future; the absence of Fernando Torres and the general weary feeling of a great club in flux and uncertain of its future hung over Anfield. A banner before the game asked the simple question "Chelsea or Gary Neville?" But in the end, Liverpool have too many problems of their own to worry about United and Chelsea.
It is hard to remember a more downbeat end to a season at Anfield in the Benitez years and it was typified by two moments in the game involving the home side's two most famous sons. The first was Gerrard's backpass to Drogba; the second was Jamie Carragher limping off disconsolately in the second half – the old spirit of Liverpool defiance well and truly crushed.
At the end of the game the players came back on to the pitch with their children to thank their fans. No one seemed to know which direction to walk round the field. The children were the only ones smiling. It was also Carlsberg's last day as club sponsor after 18 years and the thought occurred that in their current state Liverpool were not just incapable of organising the proverbial celebration in a brewery, they had lost the brewery too.
There was no Glen Johnson in the home line-up – a worry for the watching Franco Baldini, Fabio Capello's right-hand man. Alberto Aquilani had a chance early on to shoot from Maxi Rodriguez's nicely chipped pass but he delayed and allowed Branislav Ivanovic to make a clumsy challenge. Liverpool never really got going.
Once Gerrard had inexplicably played in Drogba to go round Pepe Reina and score, Chelsea were all over their opponents. They might have had a penalty before half-time when Lucas Leiva made contact with Salomon Kalou as he went into the box. The striker tripped over his own feet but he was certainly nudged.
Ancelotti had to be retrieved from the pitch by Wilkins where he had run on in a rage and the Chelsea players surrounded referee Alan Wiley. "You're ancient history," sang the Chelsea fans, followed by a few verses of "We saved your history" in reference to the likelihood that they have stopped United from winning their 19th title.
The second goal nine minutes after the break came from the right side although it was the co-opted Liverpool right-back Javier Mascherano who played Chelsea onside. Drogba found Nicolas Anelka on the right and his low cross was turned in by Frank Lampard, timing his run to perfection for his 26th goal of the season.
For many, Lampard is the difference between United and Chelsea this season, especially now that United are without Cristiano Ronaldo. As for Liverpool, Gerrard has 12 goals this term and he did not look like adding another yesterday. You can only wonder how pessimistic he must feel about the next campaign and whether the thought has again crossed his mind that it might be time to try somewhere else.
Indeed it was difficult to find anything positive to say about Liverpool as they trooped around the pitch after the match. In the past, Benitez has been capable of pulling remarkable results out of the hat and Gerrard, more than anyone, has been his miracle man. But the sense at Anfield yesterday was that the show was all played out and the tricks used up.
The Chelsea players saluted their supporters and headed off for a flight home and one more week's preparation until the big one at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. Leaving behind Liverpool to contemplate their great history and their many, many problems.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Mascherano, Carragher (Ayala, 57), Kyrgiakos, Agger; Gerrard, Lucas; Rodriguez (Babel, 42), Aquilani (Ngog, 77), Benayoun; Kuyt. Substitutes not used Cavalieri (gk), Degen, El Zhar, Pacheco.
Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Cech; Ivanovic, Alex, Terry, A Cole; Ballack; Kalou (Zhirkov, 88), Lampard, Malouda, Anelka (J Cole, 90); Drogba. Substitutes not used Hilario (gk), Ferreira, Deco, Sturridge, Belletti.
Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).
Booked: Liverpool Mascherano Chelsea Malouda, Ballack.
Man of the match Lampard.
SIX OF THE BEST: Chelsea's win at Anfield yesterday completed a clean sweep of league victories against the Big Four this season for the west Londonders
*4 Oct 2009: Chelsea 2 Liverpool 0
Didier Drogba set up Nicolas Anelka for the opener after an hour before doing likewise for midfielder Florent Malouda to seal victory in injury time.
*8 Nov: Chelsea 1 Man United 0
John Terry and Anelka both appeared to get a touch on Frank Lampard's 76th-minute free-kick as Chelsea went five points clear at the top.
*29 Nov: Arsenal 0 Chelsea 3
A Drogba double sandwiched Thomas Vermaelen's own goal as Arsenal were outclassed at the Emirates. The Ivorian's first came from an Ashley Cole cross before he swept home a fine fee-kick.
*7 Feb 2010: Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0
Drogba scored another double inside the opening 25 minutes to make it 12 goals in 10 games against Arsenal and put Chelsea two points ahead of United.
*3 Apr: Man United 1 Chelsea 2
A 79th-minute goal from an offside- looking Drogba added to Joe Cole's cute backheel as Chelsea leapfrogged United at the summit. Federico Macheda grabbed a late consolation.
*2 May: Liverpool 0 Chelsea 2
Steven Gerrard's backpass set up Drogba for the opener and Lampard made sure of the points, and perhaps the title, with a second-half tap-in.
JAMES MARINER AND BRIAN SEARS
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