Benitez & Ancelotti poles apart
How times have changed. As they exchanged handshakes after a Chelsea win that positions them on the edge of Premier League glory, it was hard to escape the image of two men literally heading in opposite directions at the final whistle.
Ancelotti was able to ponder the prospect of winning the title with victory on home soil against Wigan next week while Benitez's fate was to dodge, duck and dive around constant, and reasonable, questions about his Liverpool future.
Not a good day at the office for Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard - photo: PA
When the fixture list was published, Benitez may have made a mental note that Chelsea's visit to Anfield for their penultimate game could be a defining day in the Premier League race. It probably was - but with Liverpool embarrassingly looking at the top from a distant seventh place.
Ancelotti readily accepted, without any complacency about the meeting with Wigan, that this was "the key game" for Chelsea. Win at Liverpool and win the league was the accepted wisdom - now the job is there to be concluded.
The Italian has been questioned since he was brought to Stamford Bridge by Roman Abramovich to redefine Chelsea. All these will be answered emphatically if he creates history by winning the league and FA Cup double.
This is more than can be said for Benitez who, far from answering questions emphatically, left everything hanging in the air and did nothing to dispel the damaging clouds of uncertainty hovering over Liverpool.
It had been suggested some Liverpool supporters may have welcomed defeat if it stopped Manchester United overtaking their tally of 18 titles. This in itself is a signpost to how far their fortunes have fallen this season - and why Benitez's position must be under close scrutiny.
"Gary Neville Or Chelsea?" was the poser put forward on one Chelsea banner in the Anfield Road stand. The brutal truth for Liverpool was that it was not a lack of effort or desire that let them down - it was a lack of class and quality.
And for this, for all his hints that he has again been let down by owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, Benitez must take a large share of the blame. Too many average players signed and last summer's £37m transfer budget spent questionably on the talented but injury-prone Alberto Aquilani and England defender Glen Johnson, who has still not quite mastered the art of defending.
Amid talk of flirtation with the Old Lady of Italian football Juventus, Benitez declined countless opportunities to confirm that he would like to be at Liverpool next season - irrespective of any intervention the reconstructed Anfield board might care to make.
As for Benitez seeking assurances about his future, Liverpool's hierarchy may care to suggest the massively lucrative five-year contract awarded to him last season should be regarded as reassurance enough. It is time for the game-playing and manouevring to stop as it is Liverpool and their fans who are suffering.
Liverpool need a period of stability after the turbulence that has knocked the club off course in recent years. Benitez was either unwilling or unable to make a start in that process when asked to provide some guidance and commitment on his future.
I asked Benitez why it was not possible, on his part, to offer words of commitment about his future when he has four years left on his contract. On this day, he said, he wanted to talk about football rather than speculation. Words virtually guaranteed to lead to further speculation.
This could be a decisive summer for Liverpool. And all the sights and sounds around Anfield yesterday added to the growing belief that Benitez is increasingly unlikely to be part of it.
Support for Benitez, who has had an almost hypnotic effect on sections of Liverpool's support in the past, was muted during the game and on a "thank you" lap of Anfield in the minutes after the game. Adoration witnessed previously was in short supply and it had the appearance of a tenure that is drawing to a tame conclusion.
While Ancelotti edges closer to the league title the wait for Benitez goes on - photo: AP
If Liverpool conjure up a huge transfer kitty from somewwhere - unlikely - this summer, would they be prepared to entrust it to Benitez? This must be addressed and such is the importance of the next few months to one of the great clubs in world football, the conclusions must be arrived at swiftly.
Benitez, sights lowered, talked about "guaranteed" European football next season. Not quite the guarantee of Champions League football he offered a few months ago, but a small crumb of comfort of sorts.
The second place finish last season that led to so much optimism - and wildly inaccurate predictions from some that Liverpool might win the league this time out - was a false dawn. History now tells us it was an opportunity missed as opposed to a building block for future success.
Liverpool's fans habitually (not to mention incorrectly) take potshots at Chelsea about their lack of history. It was done in desperation as opposed to defiance on this occasion and the response of "You're Ancient History" from the visiting support was a savage and hurtful retort to a sombre Anfield.
In Liverpool's defence, they tried to give a good account of themselves in an attempt to derail Chelsea and offer hope to United. They were simply too poor, too mediocre, to turn the early effort into anything tangible.
As the conspiracy theorists gathered on Sunderland's Grassy Knoll, what would you have given to have been in earshot of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson?
Frank Lampard's second goal was celebrated like a title winner by Chelsea's fans. And so it may prove in a week's time.
Chelsea survived a slow start to end in total command as Liverpool ran out of legs, ideas and inspiration - their brilliant goalkeeper Pepe Reina apart. Ancelotti's side were nowhere near their best, but Liverpool's frailty, especially after playing 120 minutes in a lost cause against Atletico Madrid in the Europa League on Thursday, meant they did not have to be.
Ancelotti has the opportunity to usher in a new era at Chelsea with a title triumph against Wigan next Sunday. Benitez may be coming to the end of one when Liverpool bring the curtain down on a dismal campaign at Hull City.