HE asked his players to give him a headache, to provide him with a set of problems with which he would have to juggle for the remainder of the campaign.
Rafa Benitez used his pre-match press conference as a vehicle to motivate his players into getting a victory that would send expectations soaring.
Unfortunately for the Liverpool manager, the headache he is now trying to soothe is the one that he wanted the least.
Irked by a chastening Champions League experience in Florence five days earlier, Benitez had challenged his players to get the kind of victory against Chelsea that would put the momentum back in their campaign and leave him ‘trying to manage’ expectations.
Today, however, he is faced with the task of raising morale; while there was nothing wrong with Liverpool’s effort or application at Stamford Bridge, they find themselves being written of as title challengers once again after slipping to a 2-0 defeat.
Now that we have reached the first weekend in October with Liverpool having lost more games already than they did in the whole of the most recent campaign, it is inevitable that a wider audience will already be writing them off as also-rans.
True, it is going to be difficult to peg back a Chelsea team that had more nous in one or two areas but to say Liverpool are dead and buried after losing here would be as wide of the mark as it would have been to proclaim them as kings in waiting had they won.
There are, remember, 30 games still to play between now and next May; Chelsea still have to come to Anfield, Arsenal must be played home and away, as must both clubs from Manchester – there is ample time to build up a head of steam.
That said, Benitez will know – as will his players – that the small details in the fixtures that matter must be improved upon, otherwise the dreams of capturing that elusive 19th championship will end up being tossed and blown away.
Chelsea have been lauded since Carlo Ancelotti took over and there is no disputing that they do have some outstanding players but were they honestly streets ahead of Liverpool? Only the most blinkered would say ‘yes’.
As is so often the case in games of this magnitude, the opening exchanges were played out with the kind of deliberation and care that you would associate with a chess match, each side plotted and schemed, trying to find the slightest sign of an opening.
That Chelsea were unable to chisel a way through was down to the fact that the man often referred to as ‘The Little Chief’ was at his scampering, scurrying best, a figure of perpetual motion snuffing out danger at the first possible moment.
Some may rightly have questioned Javier Mascherano’s form in the opening weeks of the campaign, wondering what impact a summer transfer saga with Barcelona and Argentina’s laboured efforts to qualify for the World Cup have had on him.
His presence was sorely missed in Florence last Tuesday evening, however, and restored to his place just in front the back four, Mascherano was terrific, hustling, bustling and pestering anything that came his way clad in Blue.
One lunge on Michael Ballack early on close to the touchline, cleanly spiriting the ball of the German’s toe, proved his wellbeing following a hamstring problem – which made the mistake that led to Chelsea taking the lead all the more unfathomable.
Fatally dithering as he attempted to keep an attack going, Mascherano saw Michael Essien take the ball out of his reach and set Didier Drogba into the space Glen Johnson had vacated. From that point there was a wretched inevitability about what would happen.
Drogba’s ball was precise and once Nicolas Anelka – Gerard Houllier’s biggest mistake in the transfer market back in 2002, when he failed to sign the French striker on a permanent deal – had drifted in to space, he had the simple task of beating Pepe Reina
The way that goal was celebrated by Chelsea’s staff and players, and the way their opposite numbers slumped for a split second afterwards spoke volumes; it was almost as if everyone in the stadium knew at that point that the home side had reached checkmate.
Such a shame. If Mascherano deserved better, so too did Martin Skrtel and Jamie Carragher, who did their utmost to keep Drogba and Anelka quiet and, for 89 and half minutes, that’s just what they did.
Had it not been for that lapse, the 25th meeting in the five years that Benitez has been in charge at Anfield would, in all probability, have ended in a goal-less draw, as Chelsea’s defenders were the stars of their team.
Goals have been easy to come by for the Reds in most games this calendar year but here they struggled to get even the merest glimpse of Hilario’s goal, with John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho prepared to protect the stand-in keeper by fair means or foul.
Nothing, for example, went Dirk Kuyt’s way, Steven Gerrard – despite his best efforts – failed to find the kind of space from which he so often wreaks havoc, while Fernando Torres became more and more infuriated that a chance never came his way.
The best Liverpool could muster was a free-kick from Albert Riera on the stroke of half-time and an effort that Yossi Benayoun somehow dragged wide in the dying seconds, shortly after Florent Malouda had given the final score a flattering look.
So now the next two weeks will be spent licking wounds, rather than dreaming dreams but it must be remembered that this is not a fatal blow to ambitions and nobody at Anfield will be thinking that way. Yet they will also know improvements must be made once the next round of international fixtures are completed – otherwise Benitez could find himself with a headache that proves difficult to shift.
Final score Chelsea 2 – 0
(HT 0 – 0)
Bookings Essien 44
Chelsea's Percentage Liverpool's Percentage
Corners 5 38% 8 62%
Goal attempts 12 50% 12 50%
On target 8 72% 3 28%
Fouls 14 45% 17 55%
Offside 0 0% 2 100%
Chelsea Henrique Hilario, Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry, Ricardo Carvalho, Ashley Cole, A, Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, Souza Deco (Florent Malouda, 76), Michael Ballack, Nicolas Anelka, Didier Drogba
Liverpool Jose Manuel Reina, Emiliano Insua (Fabio Aurelio, 83), Glen Johnson, Martin Skrtel, Jamie Carragher, Albert Riera (Yossi Benayoun, 67), Steven Gerrard, Lucas Leiva (Ryan Babel, 76), Javier Mascherano, Dirk Kuyt, Fernando Torres
Referee Atkinson, M
Venue Stamford Bridge
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