Liverpool Denied As Chelsea Get Top Four Spot  (Sky Sports)

Chelsea 2 Liverpool 1

Jesper Gronkjaer
Chelsea  2-1  Liverpool 
Desailly 14
Gronkjaer 27
  Hyypia 11
Barclaycard Premiership, May 11

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 stars.

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 class told.

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 rare verve.

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 yellow card.

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 Europe's elite?

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 post.

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, Owen.
Subs Not Used: Arphexad, Biscan.
Sent Off: Gerrard (90).
Booked: Gerrard.

Att: 41,911
Ref: A Wiley (Staffordshire).

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