|Sunday 11th May 2003 (3pm)
Stamford Bridge, London
CHELSEA 2-1 LIVERPOOL
|After this game: Pos 5th Pl 38 Pts 64 (Final)
|MATCH REPORT - Chelsea 2-1 Liverpool
Gerard Houllier cut a sad, desolate figure, soaked to the skin in a south-west London downpour, as Chelsea snatched the Premiership's fourth and last Champions League place with a comfortable win they did not even need.
A goal up early on through skipper Sami Hyypia, Liverpool made the ideal start in their quest for the win that would take them back among the cream of the continent.
But Marcel Desailly's almost instant equaliser and Jesper Gronkjaer's virtuoso winner sparked a wild party at Stamford Bridge as Chelsea qualified for the Champions League for the first time since 1999 - when they were minutes away from a semi-final appearance.
Liverpool boss Houllier, who has to be content now with the Worthington Cup which will bring a second-tier European involvement in the UEFA Cup, moped off at the end just a few minutes after England midfielder Steven Gerrard had added to his chagrin by being dismissed for his second yellow card after lunging at Graeme Le Saux.
Here were Liverpool battling for Champions League status on the last day of the season for the third time in four years but needing a win on the ground where their previous 10 visits had produced seven defeats and three draws - including a 4-0 mauling last season.
At stake, by popular estimate, was upwards of £20million for rejoining Europe's elite and Chelsea wanted it just as much. Only needing a draw, they were favourites but had to come from behind in a breathless first half, played in a steady downpour.
"Never mind Cardiff's Millennium Stadium next week, this is the REAL Cup Final," announced Chelsea chairman Ken Bates in his programme notes. With his club facing liabilities of £80 million, he would say that, wouldn't he?
Yet there was no doubt that his side attacked the task with cup final-type fervour that Liverpool somehow seemed to lack.
Chelsea boss Claudio Ranieri could not find room for Zola's twinkling feet in the starting line-up and all the early maelstrom that was bound to come. It was only in the last 20 minutes he was allowed to come on and parade his tricks for possibly the last time before his adoring public.
Indeed the football lacked real quality throughout but there was sufficient goalmouth incident to warrant the frenzied atmosphere in London's SW6.
Michael Owen, whose last-minute goal beat Chelsea at Anfield in October, gave them something to think about in the opening minute this time, turning on the end of a link-up between Milan Baros and Danny Murphy to fire a low, angled shot which Carlo Cudicini smothered at the foot of his right-hand post.
But the 28-goal England striker soon became immersed in the breathless battle around him and needed a more muscular partner, which Houllier recognised at half-time with the introduction of Emile Heskey for Salif Diao.
Liverpool had another chance when Murphy won a fortunate free-kick following Emmanuel Petit's challenge 30 yards out but Gerrard drove it well off target.
But Chelsea fans in a season's-best crowd of 41,911 crowd had barely finished heaping derision on that poor effort than another free-kick brought Liverpool an 11th-minute lead through Hyypia's header.
His secondary run was not picked up as players jockeyed for position as Murphy swept the ball into the box. And the big Finn was completely unmarked as he headed down and in from little more than eight yards.
Chelsea were on level terms, though, within two minutes. Liverpool had opportunities to clear down their left flank but allowed Le Saux to take possession. He found Gronkjaer who clipped a lovely cross for Marcel Desailly to out-jump Jamie Carragher and nod in off the inside of a post.
So despite all the forward talent on display it was two centre backs - both captains - who struck the opening blows.
The next scorer was something of a surprise also - Danish winger Gronkjaer netting only his fifth of the season, but what a stylish strike from the Dane.
Admittedly, Liverpool's defenders back-pedalled obligingly to let him cut in from the right, but as soon bas he saw the whites of the goalposts, the former Ajax ace let fly with a stunning left foot drive which flashed beyond Dudek and just inside the far post.
It was a goal good enough to win any game and always looked to be a bridge too far for Liverpool to cross.
In truth, they rarely had the style or heart to threaten Chelsea's composure in the second half when the home side were able to indulge themselves with the introduction of Zola and Carlton Cole.
Own sent an instinctive shot way over and Baros was pulled up for handball after netting from Cudicini's uncharacteristic slip.
But Cole missed a good chance after Hasselbaink limped off. By this time Le Saux and Gerrard, Liverpool's only prominent fighter, had been swapping kicks and had both been cautioned; Gerrard's final lunge near the end was too much for ref Alan Wiley who produced a red card.
It was a pity for Houllier that Liverpool had not caught light much earlier on what turned out a Blue, Blue Day.
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.
Liverpool: Dudek, Carragher, Hyypia, Traore, Riise (Cheyrou 75), Diouf (Berger 63), Gerrard = , Murphy, Diao (Heskey 45), Baros, Owen.
Subs Not Used: Arphexad, Biscan.
Ref: A Wiley (Staffordshire).
BBC's Jonathon Pearce Match Report
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|Match Report filed: 11th May 2003