They say familiarity breeds contempt, well Liverpool & Chelsea are familiar enough with one another to harbour a rather hefty level of contempt these days. And football fans are familiar enough with this fixture to greet its arrival with a groan of dismay rather than a sense of anticipation.
This meeting was the eighteenth since Rafael Benitez took charge just over three and a half years ago. And like so many of the previous meetings, this game failed to produce the kind of footballing showpiece that games between, say, Arsenal & Manchester Utd tend to do.
Having witnessed United’s surprise home defeat to neighbours Manchester City earlier in the day, both sides’ urgency for the three points would have been greatly increased, Chelsea looking to reduce the gap to the Champions to a single point, whilst Liverpool hoped to keep pace with their rivals for the fourth Champions League spot, all of whom recorded wins this weekend. But yet again, stalemate was the order of the day at Stamford Bridge when the Reds were in town.
Rafa Benitez could have been forgiven for naming a defensive starting line up, having seen Fernando Torres fall victim to the International Friendly curse. But he opted for a positive looking side, Dirk Kuyt, Peter Crouch & Ryan Babel all starting ahead of the defensive screen offered by Lucas Leiva & Javier Mascherano, with Steven Gerrard given license to roam. Avram Grant was able to welcome back Frank Lampard after injury, and he replaced Florent Malouda in the side. But despite these offensive additions, there was very little by way of creativity or attacking quality in the match.
Liverpool settled in better, Gerrard buzzing about looking to get on the ball. But more often than not his passing was over-ambitious, or inaccurate, or both. Behind him Mascherano was at his best, nullifying the considerable threat offered by Lampard & Michael Ballack well, ably assisted by young Brazilian Lucas, who enjoyed a solid afternoon. Chelsea offered precious little going forward, with Martin Skrtel & Jamie Carragher keeping Nicolas Anelka noticeably subdued, and Shaun Wright-Phillips & Joe Cole unable to break free of John-Arne Riise & Steve Finnan.
It was Liverpool who looked likelier to open the scoring, and they might have done had Peter Crouch not dragged his 18th minute shot millimetres wide. It was typical Liverpool, a diagonal ball from Riise won strongly on the edge of the box by Crouch against Carvalho for Babel, who cushioned the ball back to the England striker, but his first-time shot on his weaker left foot whistled past Petr Cech’s left hand post.
Liverpool haven’t scored at Stamford Bridge under Benitez, but they began to look like they would amend that. Gerrard’s persistence down the right taking him past Carvalho to the by-line and his clipped cross picked out Crouch who had got in behind Alex, but the ball was slightly too high for him and his tame header was easily claimed by Cech. At the other end the only moment of worry for Liverpool came when Joe Cole got free inside the box, and appeared to be upended by Mascherano, referee Mike Riley had a perfect view, but waved away strong Chelsea appeals.
That aside, it was as comfortable an afternoon for Pepe Reina as he will have had all season, whilst Crouch was given a third chance to open the scoring from Kuyt’s searching right wing cross, but his far post header was disappointing and drifted harmlessly wide. Liverpool went in at the break level, but rueing a lack of conviction in front of goal. Not for the first time this season.
The second half was typical of recent encounters between these sides, niggly fouls dominating the play, chances few and far between and defences very much on top. Anelka was starved of service for the home side, and failed to muster a meaningful attempt on goal. Whilst behind him Lampard was ineffective, and was eventually replaced by fellow returnee Jon Obi Mikel with twenty minutes to go.
The biggest cheer of the day came not from a piece of football, but from a piece of comedy as Mascherano smashed a pass against the feet of Mike Riley, bringing the referee crashing to the Stamford Bridge turf and brightening up what was a pretty dull half. Liverpool still held out hope of snatching the points, but their final ball let them down. Babel saw a right foot curler deflected wide by Belletti after being fed by Gerrard, whilst Kuyt’s touch let him down as he tried to latch onto another pass from his skipper, allowing Ashley Cole and Cech to smother the danger.
At the other end, despite an increase in tempo and possession from the home side, the only real chance they managed fell to Ballack, after Mikel had clipped a ball in for Ashley Cole inside the box, Cole knocked the ball down to the German, who awkwardly prodded his volley just past the same post that Crouch had shaved in the first half. It proved to be the only real attempt that either side produced in the second half, as the game petered out into a 0-0 draw.
There was a bit of history here, as Benitez picked up his first league point away to Chelsea, and the home side extended their unbeaten home league record to a frightening four years. But in terms of a spectacle, this will be one game that the history books forgets.
Man of the match – Javier Mascherano was the best player on display, which perhaps tells the tale of the game. His breaking up of play stopped Chelsea from performing and alongside his young deputy Lucas Leiva, helped Liverpool more than hold their own in a tight midfield battle.