Chelsea 2-0 Liverpool – Is the Reds’ top four supremacy under threat?

Chelsea are back at the top of the Premier League after second half goals from Nicolas Anelka and Florent Malouda further dented Liverpool’s title ambitions.

Liverpool have now lost three of their opening eight league matches, having been beaten only twice in the whole of last season. No side has gone on to lift the Premier League crown after such a start. Chelsea now boast a two point lead over second placed Manchester United, and were good value for their 2-0 win after a disciplined and controlled performance reminiscent of Jose Mourinho’s time at Stamford Bridge.

Both goals came in the second half with Didier Drogba – so often the thorn in Liverpool’s side – creating each goal in an effective display. The game was effectively won in a tight contest after a smooth counter-attack in the 60th minute. Javier Mascherano gave the ball away in the centre of the pitch and was duly punished by a sweeping attack with Drogba crossing the ball for an unmarked Nicolas Anelka to tap home. The second came in stoppage time as substitute Florent Malouda converted Drogba’s cut-back, which simply had the affect of releasing the tension as Liverpool pressed in the hope of an equaliser.

For Liverpool, the game capped a disappointing week after another stale attacking performance, which lacked fluidity or invention. The first half performance saw a return to general efficiency as centre-backs Martin Skrtel and Jamie Carragher made a solid start. The return of Mascherano strengthened Liverpool’s resilience in a scrappy opening period with few clear-cut chances. The game was tight and frenetic, showcasing an aggressive battle between two Premier League heavyweights. It is in this type of affair that the little things make a big difference in the struggle for control and ultimately, supremacy. Liverpool did not perform badly after a public cry for improvement by manager Rafa Benitez after the tentative display in the Champions League. The difference between the two teams appeared to be the resolve and toughness to defeat their opponent.

An improvement was witnessed by the manager, but the fact remains that Liverpool’s league defeats in the league in 2009/10 have come from teams who finished in the top half in 2008/09. Having been found wanting on each occasion, they struggle to break down the opposition as they chase the game. Liverpool currently sit outside the elite top four in fifth place, merely on goal difference above Manchester City, who have two games in hand. Predictions for the new season over the summer identified Arsenal as potential candidates to succumb to the ascension of City – it now appears at the very least that Liverpool should be added to this list of vulnerability, with Arsenal exhibiting more flair and resilience so far this term.

After posting a personal Premier League record points total in narrowly losing out to eventual winners Manchester United, it is clear that to the win the title Liverpool must improve on last season. The signs so far present a frailty against teams with any degree of quality and the ability to defend in a controlled manner. Benitez and Fernando Torres both now sport similarly sulk ridden faces in the event of any decision not going their way. This appears to be a telling indication from both of the growing frustration at Liverpool’s ostensible regression against higher quality opposition in the Premier League. Symbolically, the team contains a static element operating in both directions. The inability to attack with any fluidity against better teams is a worrying sign. When faced with resolute defending – represented in this case by Chelsea captain John Terry in yesterday’s encounter – Liverpool’s attackers appear too easily subdued.

The simplicity with which Tottenham, Aston Villa and Chelsea have out-manoeuvred Liverpool could signify the need for a change in approach. An attribute of Premier League champions is to always find a way through when stiff resistance is placed in front them. Like Manchester United, Chelsea display a tendency to tip a game in their favour at a time when it remains in the balance. Unfortunately, at this moment in time, Liverpool do not exhibit such an attribute and are stalling as big spenders Tottenham Hotspur and Man City attempt to break into the top four. A stubbornness to admit defeat was a trait demonstrated by Liverpool last season. The stubbornness appears to be faltering with the fight for supremacy fiercer than ever.

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