Martin Samuel: It's tough at the top for Benitez after losing his Alonso X-factor
05 October 2009 07:27
The last English team to lose three of their first eight League games and go on to win the title were Manchester United in season 1966-67. We all know what happened next.
For those who believe in lucky omens, it stands to reason that from here Liverpool will collect their first title of the modern era in May and lift the European Cup at Wembley the following season. Leaving Stamford Bridge, however, Rafael Benitez did not look much like a man who was sensing a golden destiny in the stars.
He may have been contemplating another run dating back to March 22 last season when Liverpool defeated Aston Villa 5-0 at Anfield.
With the title race still very much alive at the time, Villa were, arguably, the last good team Liverpool beat in a match that mattered. On that day, anything seemed possible, certainly the imminent lifting of the Premier League trophy. Liverpool were coming off a 4-1 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford, having already beaten Chelsea home and away. Steven Gerrard was in blistering form and his relationship with Xabi Alonso and Fernando Torres was being hailed as the tactical masterstroke of the season.
Things change. Gerrard and Torres are still in situ, but Alonso is long gone and, suddenly, Liverpool are struggling against the best. This season they have lost to every good team they have played: Tottenham, Villa, Fiorentina and now Chelsea.
It is happening too often to be dismissed as a blip. On Sunday, Liverpool were inferior against a Chelsea team who had every reason to be fearful, coming off the back of defeat at Wigan and an unconvincing victory over APOEL Nicosia.
It was this fixture last season that put Luiz Felipe Scolari on the slippery slope to Uzbekistan and judgment was being reserved on his successor Carlo Ancelotti until it was over. Simply, he won: the match and the tactical battle.
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This was a vindication of Ancelotti's diamond midfield and the subtle changes he has made to Chelsea's style of play. Liverpool, by contrast, looked predictable and threatened rarely.
The caution that has often been a flaw in Benitez's thinking returned. Yossi Benayoun, one of their most effective players this season, remained stranded on the bench until the 66th minute. Only when Chelsea were two clear did Liverpool spring to life and force a save from stand-in goalkeeper Henrique Hilario.
This was an opportunity lost and for 43 years of history to be overcome, Benitez must first solve the problem caused by Alonso's absence.
His task is made more complex by the fact it will not be an issue every week. Against weaker teams, the deep midfield partnership of Lucas and Javier Mascherano is perfectly adequate. Cutting the supply line to Gerrard is vital in beating Liverpool, but inferior teams cannot sustain it and the games against Hull, Stoke, West Ham, Burnley and Bolton have yielded five wins and 20 goals as a result.
The better sides, though, will usually deploy an expert defensive screen. Wilson Palacios was outstanding for Tottenham on the opening day of the season. At Stamford Bridge, Chelsea's tight midfield four squeezed the life out of Liverpool's middle men.
The move for the first goal began with Frank Lampard nailing Mascherano and while it was the earliness of Didier Drogba's cross for Nicolas Anelka that was the defining element, the build-up, which also involved Michael Essien and Deco, demonstrated the significance of Chelsea's superiority in midfield.
Lucas is young and does not deserve to be made the scapegoat - he was probably superior to Mascherano - but the fact is that Alonso was key to Liverpool's resurgence last season and without him they miss the urgency of his passes to Gerrard.
'Xabi Alonso was priceless for me,' Steven Gerrard explained when we met last month. 'The speed of his delivery was essential because it gave us the advantage over the defenders. I really miss him because I scored a lot of goals that were down to his speed of thought.
'The service, the way he controlled games, to lose that was big for us. He is one of the best in the world in that position.
He reminded me of Claude Makelele, one of those players who are only really appreciated by their team-mates. The Chelsea players would pay tribute to Makelele, Zinedine Zidane talked about him at Real Madrid, too. The speed those guys play the ball is scary.'
There was little scary about Liverpool. They were ponderous compared to Chelsea and even Torres suffered in comparison to Drogba. He set up both Chelsea goals and, despite the usual irksome antics, admiration won the day. With Deco at the forward point of Ancelotti's diamond and Lampard restored to his deeper role, Chelsea's mechanism is working again.
The fault in Liverpool's apparatus is simply identified, too; they have a missing part and it is not one that can be easily placed on order.