LIVERPOOL // Let the conspiracy theories begin. Because, while the blue ribbons are yet to be attached to the Premier League trophy, it was effectively gift-wrapped by Liverpool yesterday. When Chelsea's name is engraved on the silverware, it will not mention Liverpool's captain, but his contribution was crucial. The coronation will come against Wigan next week, but Steven Gerrard enabled Chelsea to clear the major hurdle in their path. He supplied Chelsea with their opening goal at Anfield.
While Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard were the men on target, Gerrard was sufficiently off target with a pass to provide the breakthrough. The outcome, however, was fitting. Chelsea had already done a double over both Arsenal and Manchester United. A second win over Liverpool completed the set. Any side with that record has a compelling case to be called champions. In the process they ensured that Liverpool cannot finish fourth. That, of course, was not the objective when the campaign commenced. Their own ambitions to lift the title have long been abandoned; this was the only way they could have a decisive say in its destination.
But if it proves to be Rafa Benitez's final game at Anfield, it was an undistinguished end. Exhausted and demoralised, his side mustered little by way of a response once Chelsea led. Having devoted his programme notes to declaring that Liverpool would not make it easy for Chelsea, Gerrard did precisely that. His pass back towards Jose Reina was played under the assumption that no one was near the goalkeeper.
Instead Drogba anticipated it, strolled past the Spaniard and tucked the ball into the net. "Gerrard made a big mistake but he didn't do it on purpose," said the beneficiary of his largesse. Drogba the scorer, Gerrard the provider: it was a scenario Jose Mourinho may have envisaged when he tried to lure the Liverpool captain to Stamford Bridge in 2004 and 2005, and a moment that may have turned Sir Alex Ferguson an unusual shade of puce.
It came from a player who is the personification of Liverpool and who has an innate understanding of the fierce rivalry with Manchester United; Ferguson will probably have to wait another year to claim the 19th title that would propel his club ahead of the Merseysiders. Truth be told, it was a moment to sum up Liverpool's year as much as it aided Chelsea's. Self-harm has been a feature of a painful campaign.
"It has been a difficult season," said Benitez, who ignored a surfeit of questions inviting him to pledge his future to the club. "I have four years of contract left, so we will see. The fans don't have any doubt about commitment and passion." They do doubt, though, where Benitez's allegiances lie amid continuing interest from Juventus. Appreciative as the crowd were of his side's efforts over the season as they conducted what, rather inappropriately, was a lap of honour, this was a 19th defeat.
There was no weakened team from Benitez - or, his critics may suggest, no weaker than normal - and Liverpool had actually begun the brighter. Alberto Aquilani's belated display of his ability has come too late, this season anyway, to justify his £20 million (Dh113m) fee. He threatened to hinder Chelsea's challenge, however, unleashing a howitzer of a shot that clipped the crossbar of a beaten Petr Cech.
However, after Drogba's goal, gaps became alarmingly apparent in the Liverpool defence. Salomon Kalou claimed a penalty when he stumbled past Lucas Leiva and his incisive running on the left posed a threat. The second goal, however, came from the other flank. Nicolas Anelka crossed and Lampard beat Yossi Benayoun to the ball to tap it in. Reina then made two saves in a minute to deny Nicolas Anelka, from close range, and Drogba, with a crisp volley. It was a feat he repeated to thwart Anelka and Kalou.
"I am happy," said Ancelotti. "We played very well. Defensively we did a fantastic job. It was an important performance. There was a pressure on us." In a rarity, the Chelsea fans chorused the Italian's name. "I will have a good memory about this day," Ancelotti added. See off Wigan on Sunday and he will have plenty of positive memories of the entire campaign. firstname.lastname@example.org