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Smicer stunner puts Liverpool top

IF THE mark of champions is winning without playing well, of grinding out 1-0 victories, of never, ever giving up, then no wonder such a deep and sustained roar ripped through Anfield at 3.50pm yesterday.

Vladimir Smicer's last-minute volley had just sent Liverpool top of the Premiership and home thoughts turned excitedly to the possibility of a first title in 12 years.

Such is Liverpool's self-belief that they could walk through a storm at the moment and escape any buffeting. Players organised and galvanised by Gerard Houllier and Phil Thompson work for each other, cover for each other and such togetherness has carried them so far. Liverpool have skill in attack, stamina in midfield and defiance in defence but their key quality is unity.

Take Smicer. The Czech forward began on the bench, a squad player down the pecking order, yet no complaint fell from his lips; Smicer just watched, waited, warmed up and then took his chance brilliantly when called upon.

Such commitment to the cause, rather than pursuit of personal glory, is the Liverpool way. Smicer even afterwards spoke of his strike as an atonement for a similar chance he missed against Galatasaray. He hated letting his team-mates down.

Such modesty. His colleagues were rightly smothering him with congratulations, Danny Murphy leading the tributes by praising a "wonder goal". It was, indeed, a marvellous strike, utterly out of keeping with much of the dross that preceded it.

When Chelsea dawdled over a free-kick, Jari Litmanen nipped in, sending Emile Heskey racing down the left. Chelsea were disorganised, backpedalling vainly to close the danger. Heskey sped past Mario Melchiot and cut the ball back to Smicer, who sidefooted a sublime volley past Carlo Cudicini from 12 yards.

"Emile's cross on the run was probably one of the best crosses of the season," said Thompson. "The goal was down to one piece of top-quality inventiveness by Emile and the composure of Vladimir Smicer; the ball came 40 yards to him and he caught it full-on."

Chelsea, though, never deserved defeat. For an hour they were comfortably the better side. Now that Claudio Ranieri has decided to stop tinkering with personnel and tactics, Chelsea exude organised menace. "Chelsea are a very good team, probably the most confident and consistent of all the teams at the moment," said Thompson.

Marcel Desailly and William Gallas again excelled as a mobile response unit at the back. Frank Lampard and Emmanuel Petit impressed in central midfield while Jesper Gronkjaer exuded threat down the flank, constantly embarrassing Jamie Carragher with his touch and acceleration.

But Chelsea failed to take their three chances, surprising given the usually prolific nature of their attack. Eidur Gudjohnsen slid an early shot wide following Gronkjaer's terrific cross. Then Jerzy Dudek saved well from Mario Stanic. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink thought he had scored, following a fine build-up involving Stanic, Lampard and Gianfranco Zola, but the Dutchman lifted his shot just over. Having moaned at everyone else during the game, Hasselbaink should really have lambasted himself for this.

"We made three great chances but didn't score," said Ranieri. "Liverpool made one chance and made one goal. Well done, Liverpool." The Italian was upset at the way the winner was conceded. "We lost the ball," added Ranieri. "Maybe we should have taken it down to the corner flag."

On this form Chelsea can still push for the fourth Champions League place, along with Newcastle and Leeds. "Maybe we won't arrive in fourth place but my squad are improving," said Ranieri, who responded to Ken Bates's offer of an extended contract by saying: "I said `thank you' to the chairman. It's important when the chairman appreciates your work. That's fantastic. But I want to get to fourth place first."

Higher up the table, events have become even more fascinating. Arsenal have the games in hand, Liverpool the easiest run-in, but Manchester United have the experience as serial champions. "It will come down to who controls their nerves best," said Ranieri.

Following United's surprise defeat to Middlesbrough on Saturday, Arsenal have been installed as Premiership favourites, but they have lost the talismanic Robert Pires to injury for a minimum of a fortnight.

"It's in Arsenal's hands but they have some tough games," said Murphy. "It was important to capitalise on Manchester United losing. This is a massive result." The roar reflected that.

Copyright - The Telegraph 

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