by Martin Lipton of "Press Association"
Roberto Di Matteo was the cold-eyed assassin who sent Liverpool plunging to the defeat that split the title race wide open. But Roy Evans' side have only themselves to blame after contributing to their own demise through sheer over-indulgence.
The Anfield side had virtually monopolised possession in the opening period, Chelsea forced to feed on scraps. Yet it was precisely that ease on the ball that cost the Merseysiders so dear three minutes before the break.
It was a goal that started with John Barnes on the ball 30 yards inside the Chelsea half, but from then on Liverpool were only going backwards. Stig Bjornebye, Phil Babb and substitute Dominic Matteo were all guilty of passing back poorly as Chelsea pressed.
And when Michael Thomas played the fifth lazy ball in a row, Di Matteo made the leaders pay. He surged 30 yards through a wide open gap to steer beyond David James into the bottom corner. It was the former Lazio man's fourth of the season and was no doubt greeted with as much joy in Newcastle, Manchester and North London as at Stamford Bridge.
And while the second half introduction of Patrik Berger did spark Liverpool to come close to an equaliser, it was not to be, as they were made to pay the price. That was a cost that had seemed so unlikely in the opening 30 minutes, as Ruud Gullit's decision to demote himself to the bench to accommodate Frank Leboeuf robbed Chelsea of their prime asset. Indeed they had offered precisely nothing. Fortunately, Liverpool, despite the freedom accorded to Steve McManaman, were scarcely better. Passing, passing and passing again but to no effect, the over-elaboration that was to cause their downfall evident from an early stage.
True, Stan Collymore did have three early efforts on goal, but none of them were anywhere near troubling Frode Grodas. And then when Robbie Fowler did get a half-sight of the target, his decision to hit the deck rather than the ball brought no reward, referee Steve Lodge not buying the dive. A dive to more profit - two in fact - came from Grodas in the 32nd minute, denying Fowler twice in succession after John Barnes and Collymore had combined. Yet that escape served to wake the home side up, with James almost instantly extended for the first time, by Gianfranco Zola.
Then the moment that changed the game, Matteo replacing hamstring victim Neil Ruddock, and Mark Hughes immediately capitalising on the physical edge Liverpool had lost.
Suddenly it was a different game. Scott Minto in for the departed Terry Phelan was a whisker away with a rising drive. Di Matteo produced a parried stop from the Liverpool keeper and then Hughes shot narrowly wide after creating space. But the goal that was threatened did then come, courtesy of Liverpool's act of self-harm, Matteo passing to the errant Thomas when Ruddock surely would have lumped forward as Hughes closed in.
Either side of the interval the Liverpool goal was threatened again, Craig Burley volleying over and then Dan Petrescu hitting the side netting from a Burley free-kick.
Barnes did respond, shooting at Grodas when a Bjornebye cross dropped in the box, but with Di Matteo wanting the ball at every opportunity and his colleagues harrying the visitors Evans' side needed a lift. Evans turned to Berger - scorer of two goals when Liverpool beat Chelsea at Anfield - to provide it, hauling off Mark Wright and playing with a flat back four and three up.
Instantly Liverpool looked more likely, Collymore spurning a great opportunity when the Czech put him in with his first touch, McManaman curling wide and Berger himself firing at Grodas. Chelsea were now struggling to repel the red tide, so it was no surprise when Dennis Wise entered the fray 18 minutes from time, Minto departing as Gullit countered by matching the new Liverpool formation.
Wise's impact was as dramatic as Berger's had been picking out Hughes for a shot that James touched onto the bar, Wise not quite able to reach the rebound. Barnes did test Grodas again before the end as Liverpool anxiously pressed forward, but Zola was so close to having the final word with a crashing effort that might have split James' net.
One, though, was enough, the huge roar at the final whistle telling its own story. Chelsea are back in the championship rac and Liverpool showed they are not yet the finished article.
Liverpool boss Roy Evans conceded his side only had themselves to blame for the Stamford Bridge slip-up which blew the title race wide open.
The Merseysiders had dominated possession in the opening period against a Ruud Gullit-less Chelsea without making any real impact. And then just before the break, a series of easy option passes whch took the ball from deep inside Chelsea territory to the same distance inside the Liverpool half ended with Michael Thomas' poor pass allowing Roberto Di Matteo to run on and slip the ball into the Liverpool net for the only goal.
Evans admitted: "It was a sloppy goal and while we had the majority of the play we were not progessive enough. We were just too negative in possession. Michael played a bad ball but he should have had a shout. But then that's something you have to put up with. For the ten minutes before half-time we looked dodgy. Our principles are to pass the ball and that will occasionally catch us out. But we are not going to change those principles. You have to have the courage of your convictions."
Another reason for Liverpool's defeat was the hamstring twinge sustained by Neil Ruddock which happened in the period before Chelsea scored. While Dominic Matteo did get more of a grip in the second-half he failed to cope with the physical challenge of Mark Hughes and it was his nervousness which affected the whole Liverpool team in the build-up to the Di Matteo goal.
Evans knew that Liverpool had wasted a chance to strengthen their position in the title race although he added that it was a game which summed up the season to date. "Nobody seems to be outstanding but a lot of teams have got reasonable quality and that means there are no easy games," he said.
Hughes agreed that the title could not be more open. "All the teams at the top keep slipping up and I think any from four five or six could win it. Everybody seems to have bought quality players who have settled down and I think it's going to be very exciting, although I still think that it will be between Liverpool or Manchester United."
Gianfranco Zola reckons Chelsea are still in the frame. "We have a chance and there are a lot of teams who can win it," he said. "It's so unpredictable although I think Liverpool, Arsenal, Newcastle and Manchester United are the best teams."
Gullit, who said he had left himself out to accommodate the return of Frank Leboeuf, was not keen to talk up his own side's title aspirations. But it was clear that the Dutchman was more than happy with the way his side had pressurised Liverpool. "That was one of our most satisfying performances and it's great for us to win such a vital game," said Gullit. "We were under pressure but we didn't allow them to have too many chances and that pleased me because it was the first clean sheet we've had here for a long time. It was one of those games where it was going to be the small details that made the difference, the team that made the least mistakes would win."
Press' Liverpool man of the match awards
Radio Merseyside : John Barnes.
90 Minutes : Patrik Berger (8/10).
The Liverpool Echo : David James.
League Position after this match : 1st (42 points after 22 games).
Copyright - Press Association