It is difficult to summon up much pity for such a charmless club as Chelsea but they certainly deserved some sympathy here. At last matching the commitment of their defiant and deafening support, Claudio Ranieri's players were denied a deserved point in the final minute when they momentarily forget one of modern football's greatest truisms: you ignore Michael Owen at your peril.
The England centre-forward had enjoyed little luck all game, primarily because Chelsea's defence, in particular the outstanding William Gallas, had been so effective at smothering the little maestro's runs. But one of Owen's many qualities is his determination, his willingness to keep chasing lost causes. Where there is Owen, there is always hope.
When his chance came, he took it. Reflecting their desire to play a more varied game than last year, Liverpool had never resorted to desperate long balls despite the lateness of the hour. Patience was the key to Owen's winner as the ball was worked around the middle third, from John Arne Riise to Steven Gerrard, back to Djimi Traore and Sami Hyypia and Jamie Carragher before Gerrard, inevitably, quickened the move.
The England midfielder, whose addressing of the ball invariably brings Anfield excitedly to its feet, slid the ball swiftly to Salif Diao, who eluded Emmanuel Petit's poor challenge and soon sent Emile Heskey away through the middle. Heskey's hard left-footer was pushed on to a post by Carlo Cudicini.
Chelsea paused. Owen did not. Owen had not stopped running, not stopped hoping for a quarter-chance and he followed up to score from a couple of yards. "It was a striker's goal," reflected Owen. "That's what my dad always used to call it. I follow every ball in." Perseverance rewarded.
Chelsea could not contain their frustration at being hit by what their midfielder, Frank Lampard, described as a "a sucker punch". Petit and Graeme Le Saux collapsed to the floor, unable to disguise their misery, as Owen wheeled away in celebration. Ranieri, whose side had been defeated in the last minute here last season, could not believe that lightning had struck twice. "We deserved a draw but luck forgot us," said the Chelsea coach.
Yet Ranieri took some comfort from the performance following their disastrous display in Thursday's UEFA Cup humiliation at Viking Stavanger. "I am pleased because I asked my players to show a good reaction after what happened in Norway," said Ranieri.
Lampard agreed. "People made a lot of what happened in midweek," said the midfielder. "We got a lot of stick but that inspired us to go out and show what we are made of. We showed we have great character." Far from being inconsistent, Chelsea are in fact gloriously predictable: uninspired when facing lesser teams, they raise their game against top sides like Liverpool.
Gallas and Desailly were excellent, constantly nicking the ball with clever interceptions. Jesper Gronkjaer kept shuttling up and down the right, although his good approach play was let down by poor crossing. Gianfranco Zola graced a modest game with some neat touches.
But why Ranieri persists with the selfish Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, a forward who started the season by proclaiming a desire to go to Barcelona, is bizarre, particularly with an understudy the quality of Eidur Gudjohnsen waiting in reserve. Ranieri finally saw sense at half-time, introducing Gudjohnsen who gave Chelsea a far more team-minded forward focus.
If the finish was dramatic, the game had begun disappointingly. Chelsea did well at swamping Liverpool whenever the hosts threatened any real forward momentum. Most of Liverpool's best moments had sprung from the dynamic figure of Gerrard, who mixed up strong drives down the right with some spells in the centre, adopting almost a quarter-back role.
Although Hyypia almost scored with a thunderous half-volley tipped over by Cudicini, Chelsea enjoyed the better chances of the first half. Zola and Gronkjaer combined to set up Lampard, who headed wastefully wide when well-placed. Hasselbaink also went close with a flashing shot.
Gudjohnsen then arrived to test Traore, who had replaced the hobbling Stephane Henchoz. "Unfortunately, Stephane will have an operation on his calf which has been troubling him for a little while and this was probably a game too far," said Phil Thompson, Liverpool's assistant manager. "He will be out for four to five weeks for us which is a blow because Stephane is a vital cog in our wheel. But Djimi came in and did very well."
Often frustrated by Chelsea's defensive expertise, Liverpool flickered only occasionally until Owen's coup de grace. Gerrard unleashed a thunderous drive which Cudicini forced on to the bar while the lively Milan Baros, who came on for Bruno Cheyrou, missed from close range after escaping Desailly. "Milan caused some distressful occasions for Desailly," said Thompson. But the true pain was applied by Owen.
Liverpool had known that they had to prevail to stop Arsenal, 3-1 winners over Sunderland, disappearing over the horizon at the peak of the Premiership. "Arsenal won't win every game this year so we have to be ready when they slip up," said the ever-ready Owen.
Liverpool: Dudek, Carragher, Henchoz (Traore 40), Hyypia, Riise, Murphy (Diao 75), Hamann, Gerrard, Cheyrou (Baros 71), Owen, Heskey. Subs Not Used: Diouf, Kirkland.
Goals: Owen 90.
Chelsea: Cudicini, Melchiot, Desailly, Gallas, Le Saux, Stanic (Morris 45), Petit, Lampard, Gronkjaer, Hasselbaink (Gudjohnsen 45), Zola.
Subs Not Used: de Goey, Zenden, Terry.
Booked: Stanic, Gronkjaer.
Ref: G Barber (Hertfordshire).
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