Liverpool's dreams of the fourth Champions League qualification place disappeared here last season; last night, they dramatically rekindled their hopes with a marvellously dogged display embodied by the tireless spine of Sami Hyypia, Dietmar Hamann and the outstanding Emile Heskey, who created Bruno Cheyrou's exceptional winner. Even El Hadji Diouf's late dismissal could not trouble Liverpool.
Houllier's line-up had appeared riven with caution, Heskey playing the lone striker with occasional support from Cheyrou while Michael Owen began on the bench. Yet when the moment came to spring out with most venom in the first half, Liverpool cut through Chelsea with pace and ease, the Heskey-Cheyrou axis suddenly looking a headline act.
If not yet a real heavyweight partnership, at least there was real life flowing from the man christened Bruno in conjunction with the man nicknamed Bruno in his Leicester City days. When they combined, it was devastating stuff.
After 32 mundane, error-strewn minutes notable only for poor Hernan Crespo limping away after landing awkwardly on his right leg, Liverpool found their stride. Stephane Henchoz, coveted by Stuttgart but still prized by Liverpool, clipped the ball forward following a Chelsea surge, intelligently exploiting the hosts' temporary lack of positioning, and suddenly hope coursed through Liverpool hearts.
Heskey, leaping above John Terry, nodded the ball back to Cheyrou, who had sped forward hungrily prospecting for gold. The Frenchman, once described rather ambitiously by Houllier as "the new Zidane", reacted impressively to the dropping ball, working it out to Heskey, who had peeled away and was racing down the right.
The pair's second one-two brought spectacular reward, Heskey whipping the ball at waist height across the box, bending it past Terry, for Cheyrou to beat Carlo Cudicini with a volley brimming with power and confidence, a goal deserving of the tumultuous reception by Liverpool fans.
Cheyrou, making only his second Premiership appearance of the season, has hardly shone since his £3.75 million move from Lille but the qualities of awareness, touch and finish that had so appealed to Houllier were all present in this exceptional goal.
As Liverpool's travelling contingent began to chant Houllier's name, there were decisions being taken in the next-door dugout. Ranieri, who had already been forced to tweak his team by introducing Eidur Gudjohnsen for the stricken Crespo, now tinkered with his tactics, switching from a diamond to a more orthodox 4-4-2.
Joe Cole had been lurking in the hole to minimal effect so Ranieri pushed the England international to left midfield and sent Geremi over to the right to assist Glen Johnson, who had been making some promising runs to the byline. Chelsea had enjoyed some decent first-half moments, notably Gudjohnsen's twisting shot wide, but it was definitely the Liverpool fans in most voluble voice as the players dashed to the dressing rooms at half-time.
Liverpool voices were raised in anger shortly after the break when Heskey was clearly prevented from running through on goal by Terry's embrace. Houllier appealed vainfully as Chelsea and Terry escaped.
Sensing their team's ebbing self-belief, the Bridge sought to lift the players' spirits and the players appeared to respond. Inevitably it was Lampard leading the charge, the in-form England midfielder catching the ball beautifully and bringing a smothering stop from Jerzy Dudek.
Chelsea were desperately missing the creativity and work-rate of Damien Duff, who is still regaining fitness, particularly with Adrian Mutu a shadow of his early-season brio. Ranieri's men were also struggling to find a way through a midfield dominated by Hamann or past a Liverpool back line splendidly marshalled by Hyypia. Liverpool's strong characters were standing up and being counted.
The tension mounted. Chelsea pushed and probed, Liverpool dug in. Liverpool's competitive streak saw the usually mild-mannered Heskey, of all people, nastily kick out at Gallas, who then called him all manner of things in florid Anglo-Saxon.
Liverpool were stretching every sinew to keep Chelsea out; Dudek even damaged a groin muscle, forcing Houllier to send on Patrice Luzi for his debut. The former Monaco youth goalkeeper was immediately beaten by Mutu but the Romanian's close-range header rebounded off the bar; the Chelsea striker was then brilliantly dispossessed by the new keeper with a low save.
Defiance dripped from new head and old on a reassuring night for Houllier and Liverpool. Diouf sadly took the spirit of resistance too far; already booked, he tripped Mutu and was banished.
Chelsea: Cudicini, Johnson, Gallas, Terry, Bridge, Makelele, Lampard, Cole (Gronkjaer 62), Geremi, Crespo (Gudjohnsen 12), Mutu.
Subs Not Used: Sullivan, Babayaro, Desailly.
Liverpool: Dudek (Luzi Bernardi 77), Henchoz, Hyypia, Traore, Biscan, Diouf, Murphy, Hamann, Cheyrou (Riise 77), Heskey, Kewell.
Subs Not Used: Smicer, Owen, Le Tallec.
Sent Off: Diouf (87).
Booked: Heskey, Diouf.
Goals: Cheyrou 33.
Ref: S Dunn (Gloucestershire).
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