Two images tell the tale of how Chelsea seized the Premiership's fourth Champions League place. The first - Gianfranco Zola dancing round three Liverpool players by the corner flag and then doubling back to outsmart them again. The second - a studded lunge in the 89th minute by Steven Gerrard, for which he was sent off, that might have broken Graeme Le Saux's leg. Poetry defeated prose and the prize could be tens of millions of pounds.
This report could qualify for the business pages, such is the modern obsession with the financial reward for finishing an English League campaign in fourth. Missing out on gold, silver and bronze has been redefined as a triumph. Here, first-half goals from Marcel Desailly and Jesper Gronkjaer negated Sami Hyypia's 11th-minute header for Liverpool, and put Chelsea back on Europe's A-list in what might turn out to have been Zola's last match in west London blue.
It was a prize without a trophy, though the home players and supporters cavorted as if they had taken possession of something for the mantelpiece. A win in the preliminary qualifying rounds in August will fill the imaginary pot with a minimum of £15 million.
For Liverpool, who are stuck in the backwaters of the UEFA Cup, there is no evading the need to purge those players who fall below Anfield's exalted standards. On any given Saturday there are three or four Liverpool starters who fail to reach the level established by Manchester United and Arsenal.
Gerard Houllier, their manager, is unlikely to tolerate such mediocrity for another 12 months. The Worthington Cup is not big enough for the under-achievers in his squad to hide behind. Liverpool lost to Crystal Palace in the FA equivalent and failed to advance beyond the opening group stage of the Champions League. Houllier admitted before the long drive back to Merseyside: "I knew before this game that we had to draw some conclusions about our season."
Still, Liverpool are immune to the hysteria which grips some under-performing clubs. They will regroup and come again. Money will be available - even if Chelsea are a good advertisement for inactivity. Deprived of transfer funds, Claudio Ranieri was forced to seek improvement from the existing squad. The result - this city-state of a club moved up from sixth last season to fourth at the end of 2002-03. "This is the secret of Chelsea," Ranieri said. "The same team this year was a little bit better than last."
So Chelsea grab the big money by spending virtually nothing. A lesson there, perhaps. Not that they can expect to thrive against Real Madrid and Juventus without a dramatic improvement in their recent European form. It still defies belief to recall those UEFA Cup fiascos against St Gallen, Hapoel Tel Aviv and Viking Stavanger. Zola is on the list of Chelsea luminaries with uncertain futures. With him are Hasselbaink, Eidur Gudjohnsen, John Terry, Desailly, Emmanuel Petit, Gronkjaer, Mario Stanic and Jody Morris.
"It was very hard today. A big battle," Ranieri observed. "In the first half we were a little nervous. But after their goal we reacted very well and the second half was fantastic for us. Great determination, everybody fighting together. From tomorrow, I start thinking about next season."
"David and Goliath" Ranieri had called it, mischievously. It was nothing of the sort. Both have spent enough to be called big Premiership clubs. For Liverpool, hope flared with Hyypia's third League goal of the season. A rare lapse of concentration from the otherwise excellent Petit allowed the Liverpool captain to connect unchallenged with Danny Murphy's free-kick.
But two minutes later Desailly struck another blow for centre-halves by heading in a Gronkjaer cross. This Danish winger, who sometimes exemplifies Chelsea's frailty, scored Chelsea's second in the 27th minute as he was falling while executing a left-foot shot from the edge of the box.
Liverpool's ample soul was stirred, and after the break Houllier threw on Patrik Berger, Emile Heskey and Bruno Cheyrou to apply more pressure to Chelsea's robust defence. No joy. Milan Baros bundled the ball over the line when Carlo Cudicini dropped a high ball but handled it first.
Alan Wiley's most onerous duty, though, was to dispatch Gerrard for two reckless challenges inside five minutes. First, the England midfielder hacked at Zola's ankles; then, in the dying moments, he caught Le Saux so hard on the shin that he spun him round. Gerrard can now add Le Saux to his list of infamies. George Boateng and Gary Naysmith were already there.
"It was frustration more than anything else," Houllier said. But Gerrard must know that this kind of angst breaks limbs and even ends careers. An honourable player by nature, he wouldn't want that on his conscience. For two of England's five best players - Owen and Gerrard - Euro 2004 is the closest they will to get next year to the continental high life. Houllier, though, is clinging to the knowledge that Liverpool were finishing well before defeats against Chelsea and Manchester City (last week) returned them to the frustration of November and that 12-game run without a League win.
"You have to learn from the past and look to the future," Houllier said. "That's the way to success. I wouldn't say it's a disappointing season but we can improve, we can do better. We had some joy, some pain, some happiness, but at times we also suffered a lot. In the last 10 games we were climbing out of the pain." Then Chelsea pushed them back into the flames.
Chelsea: Cudicini, Melchiot, Gallas, Desailly, Babayaro, Gronkjaer (Stanic 68), Petit, Lampard, Le Saux, Hasselbaink (Cole 80), Gudjohnsen (Zola 72).
Subs Not Used: de Goey, Morris.
Booked: Gallas, Hasselbaink, Le Saux.
Goals: Desailly 14, Gronkjaer 27.
Liverpool: Dudek, Carragher, Hyypia, Traore,Riise (Cheyrou 75), Diouf (Berger 63), Gerrard, Murphy, Diao (Heskey 45), Baros, Owen.
Subs Not Used: Arphexad, Biscan.
Sent Off: Gerrard (90).
Goals: Hyypia 11.
Ref: A Wiley (Staffordshire).
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