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Draw that suits no one a cause for owners' disquiet

This forgettable match will still lodge in Chelsea minds. It was the opener in a trio of home fixtures against their fellow members of the established elite. The Stamford Bridge club had an opportunity to get to within three points of the Premier League leaders, Arsenal, who meet Blackburn Rovers tonight, but on this showing they do not deserve to be admitted into the presence of Arsène Wenger's sleek side.

This, in turn, reopens the debate about Avram Grant, who has overseen a commendable set of results since he took over from Jose Mourinho in late September. Doubters who sneered that he had not been put properly to the test can now pump up their level of disdain.

Grant himself argued that it is tough to play against Liverpool, who are so drilled in obduracy. In saying so the manager was being deliberately obtuse. As Grant well understands, it is intractable displays such as the one given by the visitors that are the measure of his Chelsea line-up. If they can barely hint at a goal, let alone find one, then they are not contenders to regain the title. The match was 90 minutes of dull ache.

In the circumstances it was a thrill when Liverpool's John Arne Riise headed a cross from the substitute Florent Malouda into the arms of his goalkeeper Jose Reina after 88 minutes. Otherwise daring barely featured in this impasse. Rafael Benítez's team, as visitors, are largely pardoned the monotony. This side may now have notched only one victory in its past seven matches but it is not stubborn efforts such as this that see them an unsatisfactory fifth in the table.

Immense goodwill is needed to talk kindly of anything that happened at Stamford Bridge but Liverpool did have clearer chances, particularly when the game was in its formative phase. Peter Crouch could have done better with a couple of headers then and wasted an opening he had helped to set up. In the 18th minute he nodded a Riise cross down to Ryan Babel, took the return ball and then missed the target.

In a better game the episode would have been buried beneath a heap of other incidents. Here it was at a risk of looming over the flattest of landscapes. Afterwards onlookers all seemed to be speaking about the hideous thought of a match such as this ever being let loose in foreign parts, under the proposed scheme that will stage one set of Premier League fixtures overseas each season.

This ignores one merit that will delight those who believe English football to be grossly over-rated. After taking one look at this wearisome affair the locals might fall in love with their domestic football all over again. Neither Grant nor even Benítez could have found much to raise his spirits.

It must be maddening to Chelsea that they have faltered just as the line-up is at last inching back towards full-strength, with Didier Drogba, the most prominent of the African Cup of Nations departees, due to return imminently. Frank Lampard, with a thigh injury healed, had his first outing since Boxing Day, although his lack of match fitness was glaring.

Chelsea might have savoured an uncommon home win over Liverpool in the Premier League if the referee, Mike Riley, had set them on course with the award of a penalty when Javier Mascherano brought down Joe Cole after 25 minutes. The official presumably classed it as an innocent collision but such incidents are usually declared a foul anywhere else on the field and Riley might well have pointed to the spot.

Even so, no one on the books at Stamford Bridge should feel wronged. In odd moments there was a feeling that Chelsea might even be beaten at home in the Premier League for the first time since February 2004. Persistence was the principal virtue of Grant's side and, after 82 minutes, the substitute Mikel John Obi fed Ashley Cole, whose cutback was steered wide on the volley by Michael Ballack.

Within moments, though, Jermaine Pennant, who had taken over from Babel, was nodding a Dirk Kuyt cross just wide of the post. While Liverpool, in most circumstances, could have taken pride in this outcome, their bid to ensure they feature in next season's Champions League means that they could do with the type of spectacular result that they could not quite grasp against Chelsea on this occasion.

The Anfield backroom staff must have been rolling their eyes at Manchester City's earlier win at Old Trafford, which emphasised how fierce the struggle is for the berths below Arsenal and Manchester United.

Benítez must take what comfort he can from the obduracy shown by Mascherano, apart from the misjudgment that could have ended in a penalty, and Martin Skrtel, the Slovakian newcomer who was dogged at the heart of the back four.

Unfortunately for Benítez, it is not his gifts in finding defenders and organising line-ups that are at issue.

There can be no reproach either over the sharing of the points here. The contest was unattractive and ugly but it is Liverpool's league position and even

Chelsea's that will cause disquiet among these clubs' owners.

The plaudits go to the man who best nullified the opposition in midfield.

Best moment Any of the occasions when his positioning forced Chelsea to head off in a harmless direction

Match Facts
03' Belletti
41' Babel
63' Riise
74' Carvalho
78' Alex

Chelsea
Petr Cech, Rodrigo da Costa Alex, Juliano Belletti, Ricardo Carvalho, Ashley Cole, A, Michael Ballack, Joe Cole, J (Claudio Pizarro), Frank Lampard (John Obi Mikel), Claude Makelele, Shaun Wright-Phillips (Florent Malouda), Nicolas Anelka

Liverpool
Jose Manuel Reina, Jamie Carragher, Steve Finnan, Martin Skrtel, Steven Gerrard, Lucas Leiva, Javier Mascherano, John Arne Riise, Ryan Babel (Jermaine Pennant), Peter Crouch, Dirk Kuyt

Referee: Riley, M

Venue: Stamford Bridge

Attendance: 41,788

Corners:
Chelsea 6
Liverpool 4

Goal Attempts:
Chelsea 5
Liverpool 10

On Target:
Chelsea 3
Liverpool 4

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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