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Paul Tomkins’ Chelsea Report

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Liverpool 2 Chelsea 1: Crossing The Line

Luis Garcia and the winning goal in a semi-final against Chelsea. So, did this one cross the line?

It has proved a rather magnificent weekend for Liverpool in Manchester: a cup final won, and another cup final reached. Quality at junior and senior level, with the first team reaching another cup final and making it eight wins on the bounce.

Harry Kewell was the Man of the Match, in his best showing in a red shirt. He was sensational. Yet again he limped out of a big game, but this time he’d been match-fit at the start, even if a muscle problem was worrying him, and this time he left the pitch having shown what a special player he can be. He must have been delighted to see that he was facing Geremi, and that Chelsea‘s narrowness gave him space to run into. But he made the most of it, even when Chelsea double-banked him. He’s been consistently good this season, but here he was electric.

Jose Mourinho’s tactics were baffling. Great manager he may be, but quite what he was doing today only he knows. The team he put out was a dream for Liverpool; he totally lost the plot. He changed radically from the pattern and players that gave us so many problems in the previous nine games, and left out Joe Cole, the big lucky charm they have against Liverpool; although it was all the more sweet when it was Cole who missed a 95th-minute sitter.

I wrote a preview in which I stated Chelsea‘s four wide players presented the one area where they clearly had more quality. And yet not one of Cole, Damien Duff, Arjen Robben and Shaun Wright-Phillips even started the game. Instead they tried to pack the centre of the park, where the Reds are always at their strongest. It meant Xabi Alonso didn’t have much time on the ball, but he didn’t need a lot in order to spread play out to Harry Kewell, who had Geremi on a skewer: twisted, turned, and thoroughly roasted. By lining up in such a narrow formation, it gave our playmaker an outlet.

Chelsea are still the better team. For £300m, you’d expect that. But the gap is narrowing, and after a slow start by Liverpool this season, it’s narrowing at pace. Benítez has transformed Liverpool easily as much as Mourinho has transformed Chelsea. And Rafa did not have a fortune at his disposal, nor did he inherit as much talent.

Since arriving, Mourinho has added 16 points to Chelsea‘s total of 79 which was accrued the year before he was appointed; he will do well to better last season’s 95 points this time around, but if they finish with the 97 points possible, hats off to them. If so, that’ll mean 18 points added to the total before he became manager.

This season, Benítez has added 13 points to the total amassed by the team he inherited, and could yet make it 22. In his first season he won the Champions League with a mixed bunch of players, and made the Carling Cup final with a collection of kids and reserves. This year he’s taken Liverpool to third, behind the two clubs who have clearly outspent the Reds, and made the FA Cup final, where Liverpool will start as firm favourites whomever they meet (and that’s perhaps a reason to be cautious; the pressure is on).

Meanwhile, the youth team won their FA Cup on Friday night. Maybe this doesn’t sound like a Benítez achievement, but four key players over the two legs were Jack Hobbs, Godwin Antwi, Paul Anderson and Miki Roque, whose goal proved decisive. All four were signed by Benítez. Anderson was sensational in the first leg, while Hobbs and Antwi were like two giant oaks in the second (except oaks with legs, and tremendous footballing ability).

So while Mourinho has done a great job ‘“ and he has, you cannot dispute that, even if he’s had a lot of money on his side ‘“ it’s been no better than that done by Benítez. While Chelsea would probably not want to swap their man for anyone, Liverpool fans would say the same of Benítez. Both have achieved equal success in the game; only one is humble.

The game itself was surprisingly comfortable for 60 minutes. It was nice to see the Reds being so positive at both 1-0 and 2-0, although the Drogba goal brought Chelsea right back into the game, and from then on it was backs to the wall.

The Reds always seem to start games well against Chelsea, but then fall away. In both league games at Anfield, the Reds were either dominating or holding their own until conceding. At Stamford Bridge this season, it was all Liverpool for 30 minutes. Getting the first goal is often crucial in big games, and only once in the ten games has the team who scored first lost: Liverpool in Cardiff last season.

Mourinho’s side only got back into this particular game from a mistake from the Reds. It was such a soft goal to concede. Riise has barely made any errors in the last two seasons, but he got his header all wrong. I wouldn’t blame Reina as he had a split second to decide if he could win the ball; had he stayed on the line and allowed Drogba what could have been a free header questions would also have been asked. The totally unpredictable header by Riise left him in dire trouble ‘“ and with a decision to make. Once made, he could not pull out.

From that point on, it was some good (and belated) wing play by Chelsea that caused a few problems, but mostly Route One stuff.

A lot of the bad blood goes back to earlier in the season when Mourinho accused Liverpool of being a long-ball team, and yet his side resorted to aimless punts yet again; only this time there was no Robert Huth up front. There’s nothing wrong with going direct; both Liverpool and Chelsea utilise the long ball, but both have tricky players to feed off it, wingers to go by people, and passers to also play through teams. Both teams have a lot of variety to their play. But let’s not be hypocritical, Jose.

Mourinho moaned that every decision went against Chelsea. His team never lose, do they? It’s always the officials. He called Liverpool a “very defensive team” in his post-match interview. I think he’s confusing a team with a great defence for a defensive team; until Liverpool’s best attacking player, Harry Kewell, limped off, Liverpool were creating chances aplenty.

The attacking side of the Reds’ play is still not perfected, of course: the two signings still required are a right winger and a fast and reliable goalscorer (on top of signing Robbie Fowler, whose finishing was not open to Benítez today). But goals have been flowing since mid-March, and in this game Luis Garcia was missing sitters, as is his wont: skying over and drilling wide with the goal at his mercy. Hardly the acts of a defensive team, especially as these chances came when already leading.

But despite these glaring misses, the little Spaniard showed why his fans (and that includes me) insist he’s such a great asset: he may mess up in front of goal, but he can finish, too. This little fella scores goals in the biggest games. He is hugely erratic, but he pops up at crucial moments with killer contributions. His finish was sublime, and he has that brilliant knack of popping up in the right place at the right time.

The finish isn’t always as composed as it could be, but his goals have beaten Chelsea twice, Everton twice, Arsenal, Juventus, and Bayer Leverkusen. There aren’t many midfielders around who have scored 24 goals from open play in the last two seasons: not one free-kick or penalty.

John Arne Riise is another who pops up with special goals. The award of a free-kick for John Terry’s challenge on Luis Garcia may have been fractionally harsh, but it was still a fairly dangerous challenge. Terry’s studs were showing. He had to go for the ball, but Crouch had only just been penalised by the touchline for a high foot on Terry. Luis Garcia’s boot was also raised, but not quite as high, and nor were his studs showing.

From the free-kick, Riise curled in a delightful goal, but yet again it proved how placement is his best option when faced with a wall. After about 10,000 blasted free-kicks, he’s still only scored one goal (against Manchester United). And yet, with only a handful of curled efforts he has been successful twice. From open play he can welly it for all it’s worth, but from dead balls this is his best option.

The FA Cup would be the icing on the cake of a season of overall improvement, but Chelsea remain the team to beat in the league. Next year is a big season for the Reds. Chelsea will strengthen yet again, but it’ll be a Liverpool team much closer to its manager’s ideal. Maybe Liverpool had the most scope for improvement, but it is the Reds taking the greatest strides at the moment.

There’s still some way to go, but Mourinho may be forced to regret saying, in another prime example of being a bad loser, that Liverpool stand no chance of winning the Premiership next season. The cards are stacked in his favour, as Mr Abramovich gets out the chequebook yet again, but it’d be extra sweet to prove him wrong.

© Paul Tomkins 2006

“Red Revival”, the follow-up to “Golden Past, Red Future”, is available to pre-order from Released at the start of June 2006, only a small number of the 1000 special limited edition copies still remain.

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