Signs of promise at Anfield
So now it is Munich or bust for Chelsea. A club that has spent years looking for the ultimate validation the Champions League offers needs to conquer Europe simply to compete with the elite next season. Their lowest league finish for a decade is now guaranteed and failure to beat Bayern Munich next Saturday will condemn them to the Europa League.
It is Andre Villas-Boas' legacy, but this was Roberto Di Matteo's darkest day in charge. Liverpool, out to avert a historic low of their own, gained a modicum of revenge for their FA Cup final defeat and provided a major reaction to their insipid first hour at Wembley. Playing with tempo, gusto and brio, theirs was a display to simultaneously offer encouragement for next year and heighten the sense of regret about their league form. By beating one west London side, they leapfrogged another. Fulham are now ninth, putting Liverpool back on course for a 50th successive top-eight placing.
They saved their best for Anfield's last game of the campaign. It was certainly Chelsea's worst day under Di Matteo but, as the Italian said, this was not the reason they sit sixth. "We have played 37 games in the Premier League and I don't think it is the points we lost today that makes the difference," he explained.
Fighting on all fronts has taken its toll and the FA Cup winners made eight changes. While the stiffs suffered and the understudies were unconvincing, the regulars were the weakest links. Branislav Ivanovic conceded a penalty and was lucky to escape a red card while John Terry produced a performance of startling ineptitude, nutmegged at will and left flat on the floor as Jordan Henderson scored Liverpool's second. On this evidence, Bayern will be petitioning UEFA to permit the suspended pair to play in the Champions League final.
Yet a focus on Chelsea's failings should not obscure Liverpool's excellence. While neither scored, Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez tormented the visitors, supplying power and pace respectively. There are times the strike duo have seemed mismatched and uncomfortable in each other's company; here they formed an awesome alliance. Henderson showed class and composure in doubling his Anfield account. The other great expensive underachiever, Stewart Downing, struck the woodwork twice, almost succeeding at the superb and struggling with the simple. Instead the belated first league goal for Liverpool came from Jonjo Shelvey, a technically brilliant strike from 40 yards. Minus the injured Steven Gerrard, the midfield pygmies turned in giant displays.
"The two young boys, Jonjo and Jordan, were magnificent, Andy was unplayable and Luis was fantastic," Kenny Dalglish said. Di Matteo, meanwhile, admitted: "Liverpool were the better side." But in a coruscating, enthralling game, Chelsea had their chances. The unmarked Ivanovic headed against the post after three Liverpool defenders contrived to collide and tumble to the turf. The returning Fernando Torres, scorer of 81 goals for Liverpool, was inches from a first against them when he whipped a shot against the bar. Ramires scored against them for the second time in four days, wrong-footing Pepe Reina again when the Florent Malouda's free-kick bounced in via his midriff.
Before then, however, Chelsea had conceded three times in 10 minutes. Suarez made the first, accelerating to the byline, changing direction, baffling Ivanovic and looking for Maxi Rodriguez. The unwitting Michael Essien turned the cross into his own net. Then, as Maxi passed, Terry slipped, allowing Henderson to stroll through and curl his shot around Ross Turnbull. When Carroll met Shelvey's corner, Daniel Agger stooped to head in.
Then Downing assumed centre stage. Having flicked the ball up himself, his wonderful volley crashed back off the Chelsea bar; it was inches from being a contender for Liverpool's goal-of-the-season contest, and the sole entry in Downing's personal competition. Three minutes later, he should have scored. But, when Ivanovic elbowed Carroll - and was only booked - Downing's penalty hit the post. The curse of the £20 million winger continues.
Shelvey completed the scoring, latching on to Turnbull's poor clearance with glorious assurance, giving an emphatic look to the scoreline and prompting others to wonder what would have happened had Liverpool played that way sooner. "I have a feeling of 'what a result, what a performance', not 'what if?'," said a cantankerous Dalglish.
Instead of the sponsor's name, Liverpool had the message "Seeing is Believing" on their shirts and it was a night to generate belief. Yet, like Chelsea's uncharacteristic failings, their brilliance was a strange sight: a mirage or a sign of things to come?
MAN OF THE MATCH: Luis Suarez - There are days when Suarez appears unstoppable. Certainly Terry and Ivanovic, neither equipped to cope with his turn of pace, ability to spin on a sixpence and irrepressible enthusiasm, could not cope with him. The only criticism is that yet more chances were missed: his 17 goals this season could have been 37.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: The challenge now is to play like this more often next season and ensure there is no repeat of unwanted figures like 52 points, 47 league goals, 46 strikes of the woodwork and six home wins. Individuals like Henderson and Shelvey need to maintain the standards they reached here while Carroll's end-of-season renaissance continues. On this evidence, Liverpool can feel they got the better of the striking dealings on the day that took Torres to Chelsea and Carroll and Suarez to Anfield.
CHELSEA VERDICT: Criticism should be limited given their exploits of late. This was an eighth game in the space of 25 demanding days, when they have been pitted against Barcelona and Liverpool twice each, plus Tottenham, Arsenal and Newcastle. Given their workload, Di Matteo's decision to make wholesale changes was understandable, even if it did not succeed. As he may be needed in the Champions League final, Paulo Ferreira's troubles should be a concern while Essien, Oriol Romeu and Florent Malouda, who may be competing to replace the suspended Raul Meireles in Munich, did not impress.
FAREWELL? It seemed a goodbye when Maxi waved to all four stands when substituted. The lap of honour was led by Jamie Carragher, prompting thoughts the old warhorse may retire, and finished with Dirk Kuyt surveying the scene, perhaps for a final time. It may be Liverpool are without all three next season. Each, in his own way, will be missed.
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