Reds suffer bout of the Blues

The road to Europe led Liverpool down a cul-de-sac and Chelsea towards no-man's-land last night. While Gérard Houllier's side will reflect on a missed opportunity to secure Champions League status, Claudio Ranieri's improving team must be consumed by the fear that a place in next season's Uefa Cup could be snatched from their grasp.

So near, and yet so far. It was an absorbing night on Merseyside, tense and exhilarating stuff, but there could be no disguising the anticlimax blanketing Anfield after a result that means both sides face an uneasy finale to their campaigns. Liverpool, in particular, will feel rueful after twice taking the lead through Michael Owen and squandering the chance to see off Leeds and Ipswich in the pursuit of a Champions League place.

If they are to be elevated to Europe's most demanding arena, however, they will have to toughen up. Their glass jaw was exposed by Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink with a predatory double of his own as Chelsea, displaying a confidence rarely evident on their travels this season, strove for the victory that would have ensured a Uefa Cup berth.

It was not to be, which means Liverpool must win at Charlton to quell any lingering fears of a late collapse, while Chelsea will need a draw to confirm sixth position ahead of Sunderland. The good news, for them, is that they will be at Manchester City.

Ranieri, a man who attends post-match press conferences only when his side have lost, has been conspicuous by his absence of late. His side have lost only four of their last 19 Premiership fixtures and, judging by the way they twice fought back, durability is an ingredient he has brought to the pot.

There is undoubtedly a new sense of togetherness about Chelsea but they were behind to a beautifully manoeuvred goal after only eight minutes. The opening was instigated by Patrik Berger's reverse pass and Gary McAllister's clever dummy split the visiting defence, allowing Owen to scamper into the penalty area before dinking the ball over the exposed Carlo Cudicini.

Such a setback would, not so long ago, have been the catalyst for a Chelsea capitulation but within five minutes they were level. There did not seem much on when Marcel Desailly picked out Hasselbaink but the Dutchman is not the Premiership's leading scorer by fluke and, allowed to run at the home defence, his dipping right-foot drive had the power and precision to beat Sander Westerveld from 35 yards. The Liverpool goalkeeper will reflect, like his defensive colleagues, that he could have done better.

Chelsea's commitment to attack was commendable even if it did leave them susceptible in defence. Owen, in particular, looked hell-bent on punishing them but Cudicini superbly kept out two more first-half efforts from the England striker and, in between, saved brilliantly at Emile Heskey's feet.

On a full-blooded, occasionally fractious night Owen's selection could have been construed as a gamble ahead of Saturday's FA Cup final against Arsenal and the Uefa Cup final against Alaves next Wednesday. But fresh from scoring a hat-trick against Newcastle on Sunday, he was clearly intent on continuing where he had left off.

On the hour his 21st goal of the season came courtesy of a fierce volley from six yards, lashing the ball past Cuducini from a Sami Hyypia assist, in the midst of a goalmouth scramble in front of the Italian goalkeeper.

Once more, however, Liverpool's exaltation was short-lived. On 66 minutes Hasselbaink broke clear again before unleashing a venomous drive past Westerveld for his 25th of the season.

Liverpool (1) 2 - 2 (1) Chelsea
Owen (8)
Owen (60)

Hasselbaink (13)
Hasselbaink (67)

Westerveld; Babbel, Carragher, Henchoz, Hyypia; Berger (Smicer), Gerrard, Hamann (Murphy), McAllister; Heskey (Fowler), Owen.

Cudicini; Dalla Bona, Desailly, Le Saux, Melchiot, Terry; Morris (Jokanovic), Wise; Gudjohnsen (Babayaro), Hasselbaink, Zola.

Referee: M. A. Riley (Leeds)

Attendance: 45,088

Liverpool: Babbel (37)
Chelsea: Hasselbaink (38) Le Saux (40) Desailly (61) Melchiot (85)

© Guardian Newspapers Limited

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