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Liverpool Daily Post match report

IF Gerard Houllier left Stamford Bridge ashamed 12 months ago, then he filed away this time his mood as dark, his heart as heavy and his head full of regrets.

No doubt he was, and still is, perplexed not so much by the side who inflicted only Liverpool's third league defeat in eight months, but more the manner in which the jolt came.

Losing to Chelsea is no disgrace, but for a spell this was as poor as it had been all season. The omens were bad - Liverpool have never won at Stamford Bridge in the Premiership - and the performance matched them.

The most important factor now as Houllier strives to bring a fitting finale to a campaign of progress is just how his players react to what amounted to a pretty tame surrender when Leicester City bring their own brand of hustle and bustle to Anfield on Wednesday.

Somehow, given the strides the club has made this season and the mentality instilled into the players, there is a sense of anticipation that they will get it right, partly because getting it wrong does not bear much thought.

Certainly, the response will have to be better, much, much better, then they showed at kick-off and then immediately after George Weah's second-minute opener.

Having spent the week beforehand assuring certain members of his multi-cultural squad they were playing for their futures, Gianluca Vialli's pep-talk sparked the kind of approach Liverpool must show in 48 hours' time.

Quicker, brighter, busier and, dare it be said, hungrier, Chelsea's determination to prove a point drew an instant reward which only fuelled their confidence to construct a series of dazzling, rapier-like counter attacks.

Houllier, perhaps, saw the vital early goal as more of a gift than a reward.

The dreadlocked Mario Melchiot, briefly tracked by the Frenchman last summer, shrugged off the at-best half-hearted attentions of both Michael Owen and Patrik Berger and fed Roberto Di Matteo, whose through ball left Weah unattended on the edge of the penalty area. In a blur almost, it was a goal.

The second, before 15 minutes had even elapsed, also emanated down Liverpool's left; Weah and Gianfranco Zola combining before an exquisite touch from the exhilarating African allowed Di Matteo to smash a shot past the exposed Sander Westerveld.

"We were anonymous in the first 20 minutes," offered Houllier, who stood shell-shocked on the touchline as he watched his players ripped apart.

Admittedly, he was face-to-face with a former World Footballer of the Year, but for the first time this season Sami Hyypia looked human after all.

Pulled out of position by Weah's intelligent movement, the composure the Finn exudes, and thus helps Liverpool to, was missing, the coolness he personifies obsolete and the pin-point distribution out of defence which is behind so many moves temporarily wayward.

If anything, his worst performance of the campaign underlined just how important he has been throughout the rest of it.

With the defending momentarily resembling the slap-stick shambles of yesteryear and the midfield doing little to prevent wave after wave of Chelsea pressure, the offer of settling for two-nil at the final whistle, never mind mid-way through the first-half, looked hugely tempting.

As always, the difference between success and ultimately failure was a fine line.

Danny Murphy, brought in at the last minute for David Thompson after Vladimir Smicer succumbed to overnight illness, watched a free-kick whistle through a crowded penalty area, evade Ed De Goey, but scream past the wrong side of his left-hand post.

There were legitimate appeals for a penalty within seconds of Chelsea increasing their advantage as Frank Leboeuf appeared to haul-back Patrik Berger as he attempted to apply a telling touch to Hyypia's chipped pass.

And having benefited from one referee 'bottling it' the previous week, so Liverpool can feel aggrieved Jody Morris wasn't red-carded long before half-time for a second bookable offence after a rugby tackle prevented Steven Gerrard sparking an all-too-rare sortie forward.

But it would be reckless - and a down-right lie - to try and dull the pain by passing this off as some sort of hard-luck story.

With too many players off-form and off-colour it was a contest they never looked capable of gaining a foothold in. The watchwords Houllier and Phil Thompson have spent hours drilling into their charges were forgotten in an instant as long, hanging balls were relentlessly pumped forward with Owen no chance of beating Leboeuf in aerial combat never mind the ruthlessly efficient Marcel Desailly.

The arrival of Jamie Redknapp minutes into the second-half elicited an improvement, in commitment as much as anything else, as he pushed himself for inclusion from the start against Martin O'Neill's side. Demanding possession, varying his passing, he could be required to help lift Liverpool out of a levelling-off period which started in the final quarter against Wimbledon, persisted at Everton and has continued since.

Overall, however, it remained a performance the more blood-thirsty cynics could spend hours picking holes in.

Having sacrificed his defensive midfielders, one through injury, one tactical, so Liverpool ended the game with the creative talents of messrs Redknapp, Murphy, Berger, Camara, Owen, Heskey and Fowler all on the pitch at the same time.

While it momentarily dispensed with the argument of why a modern-day squad needs at least four strikers, the worrying part remained the inability to carve out one decent opening. De Goey will seldom have had an easier afternoon.

Houllier lamented: "It is just my regret that this wasn't the true face of Liverpool Football Club."

And that it wasn't should see that a level of realism is attached to everything.

Before everyone reads too much doom and gloom into the situation, it is worth remembering that it is only because of the standards they have set themselves since October that Saturday was so, so disappointing.

Prior to the weekend, there is no doubting their outstanding run of form had prompted delusions of grandeur.

But with second place always likely to fall to Arsenal - primarily because they are collectively stronger - defeat could yet prove in a strange way to be the shot in the arm needed to secure the much-coveted third Premiership spot.

The forthcoming games against Leicester, this week, Southampton and Bradford City are eminently winnable.

Despite this defeat it remains in Liverpool's own hands. They are not relying on others to do them any favours.

"We will do better next time," said Houllier, before turning on his heels and leaving the post-match conference.

He meant against Chelsea. Leicester City awaits before then.

CHELSEA (4-4-2): De Goey, Melchiot, Desailly, Leboeuf, Babayaro (Poyet 45); Di Matteo, Morris (Thome 69), Wise, Harley; Weah (Sutton 80), Zola. Subs: Cudicini, Ambrosetti.

LIVERPOOL (4-4-2): Westerveld, Carragher, Henchoz, Hyypia, Matteo; Murphy (Fowler 75), Gerrard (Redknapp 50), Hamann (Camara 64), Berger; Heskey, Owen. Subs: Nielsen, Song.

REFEREE: Graham Barber (Tring)

BOOKING: Morris (foul 17)

ATTENDANCE: 34, 957

© Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

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