Richard Jolly reports
The stakes could hardly have been higher. For the winner, the 20
million bonanza the Champions League provides, for the loser, either a
limit to Gerard Houllier's spending spree or the sale of Chelsea's
And though he may be too unassuming to claim the credit, Claudio
Ranieri took Chelsea back into the millionaires' paradise and provided
further evidence of Liverpool's decline over the last 12 months.
Chelsea may have stuttered of late to revive Liverpool hopes of the
top four finish which appeared beyond them, but they were merely
setting up a Stamford Bridge showdown in which Ranieri's side's extra
Two targets for Chelsea's critics, Marcel Desailly and Jesper
Gronkjaer scored the all-important goals; after the winger's
spectacular winner, cutting in from the right, evading Djimi Traore
and John Arne Riise and curling an unstoppable shot past Jerzy Dudek,
the outcome was rarely in doubt.
Frustratingly inconsistent though he can be, Gronkjaer is both a
winger and a match winner: how envious Gerard Houllier must be. This
was a stellar display from the quicksilver Dane, tackling back with
He was not alone. Man of the Match Graeme Le Saux was the epitome of
commitment, the limping Desailly and the excellent William Gallas
solid in a defence.
But Liverpool were almost handed a lifeline and Houllier and Carlo
Cudicini, in particular, were spared a nerve-wracking final 15 minutes
when Milan Baros had an equaliser chalked off for handball after the
Chelsea keeper missed a cross.
And Steven Gerrard, who had declared that defeat would make
Liverpool's season a failure, was overcome by the disappointment of
under-achievement to clatter into Graeme Le Saux and earn a second
Houllier's rather different statement that his side deserved Champions
League football was greeted with skepticism if not laughter outside
Merseyside. The rather more painful truth was that, at Stamford Bridge
as in the season as a whole, they were not quite good enough.
Captain and goalscorer Sami Hyypia was, though. So, too, were the
driven Gerrard, the inventive Danny Murphy, the lively
Michael Owen and keeper Jerzy Dudek, whose superb save from Mario
Melchiot prevented a heavier defeat.
But they were isolated by the limitations of their team-mates and
Liverpool ended with three substitutes - Emile Heskey, Patrik Berger
and Bruno Cheyrou - all occupying the left wing; while Chelsea had
their greatest ever player, Gianfranco Zola, on the bench, Liverpool
were warming up Cheyrou before the end of the first half.
With a win of paramount importance, Liverpool cast off their usual
inhibitions as Michael Owen drew a first-minute save from Cudicini.
And for three minutes, they could dream, Hyypia escaping Emmanuel
Petit's attentions to head in a typically precise Murphy cross.
Were trips to Milan, Munich and Madrid beckoning after all? Could
Liverpool overcome their worst league run for 50 years to return to
But such thoughts were short-lived, opposing captain Desailly heading
in an almost carbon copy goal. Gronkjaer was the provider, the
ineffective Salif Diao the culprit.
And Gronkjaer's wonder strike showed the spirit Ranieri has fostered
at Stamford Bridge; as their subsequent control showed, Chelsea's
often maligned millionaires were in no mood to let this one slip.
Left with 45 minutes to save their season, Houllier concluded that
desperate times called for desperate measures and introduced Heskey.
But though Owen blazed a half-chance over and Gerrard's thunderbolt
picked out Cudicini, clear-cut opportunities eluded Liverpool.
Instead, only a superb Jamie Carragher tackle denied Jimmy Floyd
Hasselbaink a decisive third, Frank Lampard and Mario Stanic tried
their luck and Dudek touched Melchiot's effort on to the inside of the
And while Liverpool's season ended with recriminations and Gerrard's
dismissal, Chelsea's concluded with Zola running through his full
repertoire of tricks. Champions League football may prolong his
glorious career - and that, as much as the financial benefits, will
reward Chelsea for their fine season.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Graeme Le Saux (Chelsea) - No one
worked harder in the Chelsea cause.
Chelsea: Cudicini, Melchiot, Gallas, Desailly,
Babayaro, Gronkjaer (Stanic 68), Petit, Lampard, Le Saux, Hasselbaink
(Cole 80), Gudjohnsen (Zola 72).
Subs Not Used: de Goey, Morris.
Booked: Gallas, Hasselbaink, Le Saux.
Liverpool: Dudek, Carragher, Hyypia, Traore, Riise (Cheyrou
75), Diouf (Berger 63), Gerrard, Murphy, Diao (Heskey 45), Baros,
Subs Not Used: Arphexad, Biscan.
Sent Off: Gerrard (90).
Ref: A Wiley (Staffordshire).