by Anthony Jones at Talklfc
The familiar faces of Chelsea rolled into Anfield last night to face Liverpool for the sixth time in just over a season. The stakes were not as high as the last time these two sides met and that was reflected by the slightly less raucous atmosphere in the ground. There was a feeling that with another game between the two scheduled for Sunday, a share of the spoils here wouldn't be the worst result for either side.
Once again Benitez shuffled the pack, a theme that is becoming as familiar to the Kop as the 4-5-1 formation the manager moves his players about in. In came Cisse, Traore, Garcia and Finnan with Sinama-Pongolle, Warnock, Zenden and Josemi making way. It was Garcia and Cisse who were detailed to provide the width with Gerrard deployed in support of Peter Crouch. There was talk that Cisse might start centrally but by once again ignoring that option, Benitez sent out yet another message that Cisse's future appears to lie elsewhere. It is a situation that attracts mixed feelings on Merseyside with the striker winning favour through his desire to return from injury and the occasional explosive demonstration of his electric pace. However others feel that Liverpool over paid for a player who is at best lacking in focus or arguably short of genuine quality in possession. Either way, the match represented another opportunity for Cisse to prove himself.
Any doubt that this would be anything but another close fought match was quickly removed as both sides toiled to create any real opportunities. With both sides having started the season well defensively it was no surprise to see the attacking players on show find it hard to break down the massed ranks. Garcia was heavily involved for Liverpool, whilst Robben and Duff probed for Chelsea but neither side was able to find the space or quality to deliver a telling final ball.
It might have been different if the match official, who angered the local support at times by stopping the game at every opportunity, had given what appeared a certain penalty in the first half. A free kick in a central position was quickly worked out wide to Finnan. The full back lofted a cross towards the far post where Crouch rose above his marker to head down to Hyypia. The big defenders first touch was a little heavy, but he was denied a second as Drogba swung at the ball but connected with Hyypia's leg. The ball rolled out of play, Hyypia lay on the ground and the official gave a corner for a touch that never was. After the regularity of penalty decisions which Liverpool were denied against Chelsea last season, it was no surprise that the appeals were slightly muted.
For all their domination of midfield, it was Chelsea who presented the only real challenge on goal when they finally worked Robben into space. The tricky winger cut in from the right and his shot was palmed over the cross bar by Reina. The Spaniard had had another heart in the mouth moment earlier in the half when he came a long way to try to claim a corner but was well under the flight of the ball. Other than that it was a solid showing from the stopper.
Early in the second half Luis Garcia nearly opened up the Chelsea defence. Getting the break of the ball he managed to get the wrong side of Ferreira but just failed to bring the ball under control as Cech closed down the space. A tug from Ferreira possibly impeded Garcia but the player to his credit opted to stay on his feet rather than go down easily - it would have been a harsh penalty had the official given it. As if that wasn't enough, Liverpool again felt aggreived when a thunderous header from Jamie Carragher clearly struck the arm of William Gallas. The referee clearly feeling that the player had made no attempt to block the ball with his arm, and with the ball travelling at some speed it was probably the correct decision.
Liverpool were clearly the better side and the improvement overall of the team play of the side since Benitez's arrival was clear. The signing of Peter Crouch has been one of the most contentious decisions made by a Liverpool manager for some time but here the big striker showed his worth. He was a constant target for his team mates to hit, sometimes aerially but more significantly always presenting himself to receive the ball to feet. Whilst there is nothing particularly spectacular in his play, his ability to receive, control and simply distribute the ball on a regular basis make him more valuable to Benitez than other more wayward forwards. With better support from midfield, the debate about Crouch may quickly disappear. That support was sadly the one area where Liverpool again let themselves. Steven Gerrard's effort was as expected but he was unable to find the inspiration that he so often achieves. On nights like this it is hoped that others step up, with the two wide players most needed. However as much as Garcia tried, and there was no lack of effort on his part as he was constantly involved, he failed to find the final ball. On the other flank, Cisse was a massive disappointment failing to play any real part in a Liverpool attack of note. It was no surprise that he was replaced, with Sinama-Pongolle coming on and it was telling that the substitute provided the only real moment of wing play as he skipped past Terry to get to the by-line. His cross was cleared but only as far as Alonso who hit a dipping volley that would have tested Cech had it been to either side of him.
So it closed as it started with both sides even. Chelsea will no doubt be the happier of the sides having gained a point away from home, whilst they were clearly second best for the majority of the night. Liverpool's full backs largely kept the attacking threats of Robben, Duff and laterly Shaun Wright-Phillips quiet. Traore had a few moments where he lost his man, but showed his ability to recover when needed. Didier Drogba had one of his more wayward nights and was well marshalled by Carragher and Hyypia but for one moment in the second half where the communication broke down as the two went for the same ball. Thankfully Reina rescued the situation as he showed he is confident to quickly come off his line. Liverpool's midfield trio of Hamann, Gerrard and Alonso dominated the centre of the park and generally moved the ball around well. Alonso went dangerously close to picking up a second booking after a tug back on Essien after some sloppy play in the first half earned him his initial caution. Upfront Peter Crouch played as well as anybody, giving Carvalho a difficult ride all evening. His link up play with Gerrard in particular continues to look promising and with better support and service from the wide areas, Liverpool's shape could pay dividends. It is a night where Benitez will be pleased that for the most part his plan was well followed. However he will no doubt be frustrated, not for the first time this season, that the wide player that he so desperately wanted was not recruited in the summer. Liverpool's hope will be that they continue to play like this until the January transfer window, thus securing a decent base from which to push on. It will then be hoped that the players needed will be recruited.