Wednesday 21 March 2018

Johnson shines in battle of Ex-Factor

Glen Johnson celebrates his winning goal at Stamford Bridge yesterday alongside team-mates Stewart Downing and Luis Suarez
Glen Johnson celebrates his winning goal at Stamford Bridge yesterday alongside team-mates Stewart Downing and Luis Suarez

Everyone talked about the 'Ex-Factor', about whether it would be Fernando Torres or Raul Meireles biting the hand that once fed them so generously.

Nobody expected the ungrateful old boy to be Glen Johnson, who tipped his former Chelsea colleagues into a deepening depression with a magnificent late winner for Liverpool.

As Johnson celebrated with his team-mates, Kenny Dalglish leapt from the dug-out and performed a little jig of joy on the pitch, saluting the partying away throng in the Shed, knowing what a significant result this was. Dalglish has revelled in some good moments for Liverpool here, notably sealing the title with a splendid volley in 1986, and his beaming smile has not changed.

If Dalglish's features vividly captured the thrill of victory, Andre Villas-Boas desperately sought to put a brave face on a damaging defeat that highlighted the scale of the rebuilding job here.

Chelsea's manager rather resembles a new house-owner discovering the surveyor's report glossed over substantial structural problems.

In extending their unbeaten run to nine, Liverpool exuded qualities that Chelsea need: pace on the break, unity of purpose and resilience in adversity. Above all, everyone at Liverpool is behind Dalglish. How Villas-Boas would crave the dressing-room to board-room fidelity enjoyed by Dalglish.

The painful truth of this intense encounter was that Dalglish largely got his tactics right. Aware of the high defensive line favoured by Villas-Boas, Dalglish had gone for speed, unleashing Luis Suarez, Maxi Rodriguez, Dirk Kuyt and Craig Bellamy on John Terry and company. Terry looked unsettled, responding to Liverpool's high-speed attacks with all the composure of a hiker entering a field to find it filled with hornets.

They kept buzzing at him. The alarm-bells rang all along Chelsea's back-line. Even Ashley Cole, a byword for reliability, was caught out.

Villas-Boas kept shouting instructions at them to no avail. When Terry slipped, Kuyt steamed through and only David Luiz saved the day. The Brazilian, otherwise, was at his hair-raising worst, too lax on the ball and eventually wrestling with Kuyt. Luiz looked like an accident waiting to happen, particularly when Suarez was darting around him. The Uruguayan was a high-class pest in the best sense, giving anyone in blue no peace at all.

Chelsea still had first-half chances. Juan Mata had a shot deflected, John Obi Mikel fired over while Didier Drogba drilled a free-kick into the Matthew Harding Stand, but nerves continued to flood through Chelsea's defence.

Liverpool fans were loving it, reminding their hosts of past painful encounters with a song about a certain Anfield "ghost goal" as Jose Mourinho so grumpily called it. "Luis Garcia," they sang, "he drinks sangria". It was Chelsea who looked punch-drunk. A frustrated Branislav Ivanovic screamed at the ref. Yet for all their individual mistakes, Chelsea's back four were given little protection, particularly from Mikel, whose lack of concentration cost them dear after 34 minutes.

Charlie Adam, outstanding all game, sensed an opportunity, forced the turnover, and Liverpool were off and running, sprinting towards a dishevelled defence. Bellamy and Suarez exchanged passes and the Welshman could have shot but selflessly passed to Maxi, who swept the ball past Cech.

For all the barbs now being aimed at Villas-Boas, the Portuguese can take decisive action. He had strong words with his players at the break. He made changes in personnel and tactics. Mikel was hooked, Daniel Sturridge unleashed down the right, Mata re-positioned in the hole, Ramires was withdrawn into the holding role and Chelsea looked far better. More urgent. More co-ordinated.

Drogba, whose days are surely numbered, shot over. But after 54 minutes, Chelsea's more assertive tempo was rewarded. Florent Malouda's cross-shot reached Sturridge, who exploited poor marking by Jose Enrique to drive Chelsea level.

The hosts were transformed. Drogba swirled in a ball that Ivanovic met with a glancing header seemingly destined for the net. Chelsea fans in the Shed were rising to their feet, ready to acclaim a goal. Pepe Reina had other ideas, throwing himself to his left to push the ball away. Wonderful save. Big moment, too.

Liverpool were struggling, forced deep, grateful for a Martin Skrtel charge from defence to relieve the pressure. Dalglish had to react. He chose to flood midfield, inserting Jordan Henderson for Maxi, leaving Suarez slightly isolated. Still Chelsea poured forward, Malouda sending an overhead kick just wide.

Even Torres was running towards the away end, albeit on the tame side of the touchline. As he warmed up, Liverpool fans responded in spiky fashion, enquiring how life was on the Chelsea bench and greeting the £50m with an assortment of exotic hand-signals.

Grim-faced as he accelerated towards them, Torres smiled on the way back.

But he's needed on the other side of the line. With seven minutes remaining, Torres replaced Drogba in attack while Meireles anchored midfield for Ramires. Yet it was Liverpool who gained a second wind.

Henderson sped past Cole and Terry before crossing to Stewart Downing.

Unfortunately for Liverpool, Kuyt messed up the sub's enticing lay-off. No matter. Brilliantly picked out by Adam's crossfield pass, Johnson sped down the right, cut inside the sluggish Cole and placed a low shot past Cech, sending Dalglish on to the pitch and despair spreading through the home side's technical area.

What this setback demonstrated is that Roman Abramovich must be patient. If you appoint a bright young mind to sort out a team with too many ageing legs, do not expect instant miracles.

The ghost of Mourinho continues to haunt the Chelsea dug-out. Too many members of his old playing staff need moving on.

Villas-Boas does have options, and the sooner Oriol Romeu and Sturridge are embedded the better. He has money, and if Javi Martinez can be prised from Spain, he would be a marvellous addition. Villas-Boas has to work on Torres, starting him and rebuilding his confidence.

Anyone with any understanding of Torres' psyche knows that he needs daily uplifting words from his manager. Most importantly, Abramovich needs to show belief in Villas-Boas. It's too early to make him an ex. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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