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Benitez relishes vital victory

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Phil McNulty | 23:14 GMT, Sunday, 1 February 2009

Rafael Benitez looked as satisfied as any man would after recording a major triumph on the pitch and moving closer to securing a significant victory off it.

Indeed, Benitez was so pleased with Liverpool's victory against Chelsea - a win that re-ignited hopes of a first title since 1990 - that he even happily refused to discuss his new contract.

Liverpool co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett were at Anfield, although pointedly sitting well apart, to broker a deal on the proposed four-and-a-half year extension to Benitez's Anfield tenure.

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And as Anfield whispers grew that a revamped package handing him increased control of transfers would be much more to the Spaniard's liking, Benitez strengthened his hand by delivering a win that revived Liverpool's faltering campaign and dealt Chelsea's own ambitions a potentially fatal blow.

Benitez brushed off talk of Robbie Keane's continued exclusion and questions about that contentious contract with small but effective repetitions: "I am enjoying today."

And enjoying it he was - which was in sharp contrast to the sad and somewhat resigned demeanour of Chelsea counterpart Luiz Felipe Scolari as he picked over a display that suggested he may just have arrived at Stamford Bridge at precisely the wrong time.

Benitez needed this win, with growing fan unrest (hardly open rebellion but certainly more open questioning) about his approach fuelled by Liverpool's lull in form following his attack on Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson.

He displayed iron-clad confidence about Liverpool's title chances in his post-match analysis and did not look like the agitated figure of recent times. Benitez was not, as United, Everton and Chelsea fans have suggested at various intervals this weekend, cracking up.

Fernando Torres' two late goals gave Liverpool a victory they deserved for being the one team who took seriously the task of winning a game where victory was the only result in town. A crucial fact that appeared to escape Chelsea.

Liverpool did not deliver compelling evidence that they will push United to the wire, but they were positive, persistent and went forward until the end - leaving Anfield harbouring a distinct "and then there were two" feeling about the title race at the final whistle.

If Chelsea could plead any mitigating circumstances, it would be Frank Lampard's horribly unjust red card on the hour - an incident that is only likely to continue his feud with Xabi Alonso that dates back to an incident when Liverpool's midfield man suffered a broken ankle in 2005.

Referee Mike Riley, who had a poor game, failed to detect Lampard getting a touch on the ball before Alonso made contact with his shin. And Chelsea's sense of injustice was increased by Riley's failure to punish Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard for a more reckless challenge minutes earlier.

Liverpool had already gained the upper hand, and Lampard's departure merely confirmed their supremacy. It was only the efforts of defensive heroes such as Alex that kept them in the hunt until Torres struck with a minute to go and again in injury time.

I have been critical of Liverpool in recent weeks, with full justification after watching many of their recent stalemates, but they were good value for the win and their approach warranted three points.

Liverpool did not sparkle, but they were prepared to sweat and grasped the concept of victory, something which was lost on Chelsea. This provided a solid launchpad for their world-class talent such as Torres and Gerrard.

Chelsea, to put it charitably, were wretched. Lampard's dismissal actually only cost them a point because they never looked like getting three at any point.

And of course, Chelsea will surely now lose Jose Bosingwa to suspension after his ludicrous kung fu attack on Yossi Benayoun - an act of hot-headed madness that was amazingly missed by the officials, especially the referee's assistant, who was almost bundled over himself in the melee.

Scolari was his usual generous self as he sat disconsolately at Anfield pondering such a damaging setback. He could not say it but the careworn look said it for him. The game is up for Chelsea in a Premier League context.

And, more worryingly, Chelsea's whole performance gave off a horribly stale stench of a team in need of a major overhaul.

Petr Cech, that great untouchable of goalkeepers, looked vulnerable throughout and took up an almost disorientated position for Torres' first goal.

Chelsea's midfield looked pedestrian, lacking in ideas. Michael Ballack glided effortlessly around to no effect at all and looked an expensive passenger in comparison to the hungry Gerrard.

And then we had Didier Drogba - or at least I think we had him. He gave a cameo of sorts as substitute, a cameo which suggested he has already got his coat when it comes to his long-term future at Stamford Bridge.

Scolari was brutally realistic. He knows he will face questions, but there is more to Chelsea's decline than the arrival of a World Cup-winning coach into alien Premier League territory.

He has arrived at a time when Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has put the block on his lavish spending. He has inherited players who are handsomely paid but past their best - and he does not have any younger players of serious quality to call on from Chelsea's reserves.

Scolari must hope Abramovich revisits his new policy on spending, or that Chelsea's youth programme can throw him new gems, because he looks to be in charge of a team that is heading over the hill.

He is a dignified, likeable man and it is not a pleasurable experience to witness his discomfort in defeat, but Scolari needs to find fresh ideas, or teach some old dogs new tricks, if he is to make Chelsea serious contenders again.

Of course this may strike an alarmist note with some Chelsea fans, but one point from five meetings with their so-called closest rivals this season tells the tale.

Liverpool can now move forward with renewed optimism after a performance that at least hinted at the predictions made earlier this season that they could actually threaten to reach that Premier League pinnacle.

If Benitez can settle his differences with Liverpool's hierarchy to bring the stability off the pitch that will foster progress on it, then the great brinksman and part-time politician may yet have the last laugh on us all.

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