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30th Jan 2017

How Liverpool became the biggest victims of Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea regime

Tony Barrett

The last time Chelsea played Liverpool without having Roman Abramovich as owner, Claudio Ranieri, their then manager, laid bare the scale of the challenge he was facing.

“David and Goliath,” he described it as, albeit with a flourish of exaggeration. Fourteen years on and roles have been reversed. The giant is wearing blue and the upstart trying to take him down with a slingshot is dressed in red.

As they prepare to inform their Chelsea counterparts that they “ain’t got no history,” Liverpool supporters will bristle at the idea that they are now underdogs in a rivalry that only began in the Premier League era but all of the performance indicators that matter most support the idea that the London club is now in the ascendancy.

Historically, Liverpool remain ahead but contemporaneously they have fallen behind. Roman’s empire has claimed many victims but there is a strong case to be made that Liverpool are the biggest. Alex Ferguson might like the idea that he knocked Manchester United’s great rivals off their fucking perch but the reality is that they had vacated it before then and since Abramovich’s arrival it has been Chelsea who have either used Liverpool as a stepping stone to success or stood in the way of the Merseyside club’s own dreams of glory.

The statistical evidence is particularly illuminating. In the 13 years that Abramovich has been owner, Chelsea have won four Premier League titles, four FA Cups, three League Cups; they have also lifted the Champions League and the Europa League. Liverpool, by contrast, have not won the Premier League but have won the Champions League, FA Cup and League Cup once each.

Success has become increasingly hard to come by with only one domestic honour, the 2011/12 Carling Cup, being celebrated at Anfield in the last decade.

But what captures the transferral in power most dramatically is the Premier League performance of the two clubs in comparison to one another. In the 13 seasons since Abramovich took over at Stamford Bridge (including the current one), Chelsea have won 161 points more than Liverpool and have finished behind them on only three occasions.

In the 13 seasons prior to that, Liverpool earned 94 points more and finished behind them only twice. Over 26 years, that is a 255-point swing in Chelsea’s favour, with Abramovich hitching up at Stamford Bridge the glaringly obvious moment that fortunes began to reverse.

It has not always been one way, with the defeats Liverpool inflicted on Chelsea in the Champions League semi-finals of 2005 and 2007, not to mention the FA Cup in 2006, underlining that nouveau riche has not always prevailed over ancien regime.

But whatever pain was caused by those losses, and one assumes it was fairly significant given Jose Mourinho still complains about Luis Garcia’s “ghost goal” of 2005, will have long since been assuaged as Chelsea have established themselves as serial contenders and serial winners, a mantle that Liverpool once enjoyed but which they now aspire to.

It was during the “shit on a stick” period, as described by Jorge Valdano, between 2004-07 that Rafael Benitez landed a verbal blow on his great nemesis Mourinho which, in hindsight, now appears too close to the truth to be dismissed as mind games. “It is very simple: they have spent more money than any other club on players,” the Liverpool manager argued.

“Abramovich has done a fantastic job with this team because, after 50 years without a title, they’re about to win the league twice in a row. The manager has done a good job but, for me, the owner is the key. John Terry, Frank Lampard, Jose Mourinho are all important, but they wouldn’t have anything like they do without Abramovich. He started the revolution.”

Whether it was intended as a barb or not, and clearly it was, Benitez struck on the truth. As undeniably brilliant as Mourinho was for Chelsea, particularly in his first spell, Abramovich was the game changer. In the months leading up to his takeover of the club, Chelsea’s players had been warned that cost-cutting would be necessary if they failed to qualify for the Champions League and while suggestions that they might “do a Leeds” might have been extreme, there was a clear sense that the fiscal walls were beginning to close in on them.

To put what followed in perspective and also to highlight how Abramovich’s arrival skewed their rivalry with Liverpool in their favour, transfer records over the last 13 seasons show that it all but four of those campaigns Chelsea have been able to spend more on signings.

Furthermore, in three of the four seasons when Liverpool have been in a position to spend what would be considered a transformative amount in the transfer market, they have had to sell a major star to help finance their outlay (Fernando Torres in 2010, Luis Suarez in 2014 and Raheem Sterling in 2015).

While Liverpool have exceeded the £100 million mark on incoming transfers only once in a single season, in the year following Suarez’s sale, Chelsea have been able to do so four times. Underpinning that superiority, particularly after the early years of Abramovich’s reign when the largesse of their owner-funded raised ambitions, has been a growing ability to sell well, Oscar being the latest example.

With a business model which has allowed them to finish ahead of Liverpool in the Deloitte rich league every season since 2003/04, despite having an inferior stadium capacity, it is not only on the pitch that Chelsea have usurped the Merseysiders.

But while Abramovich is the individual more than any other who has made this possible, those whom he has employed have needed to implement his vision and where Liverpool are concerned they have done so particularly ruthlessly. The tone was set in his first game as owner, a 2-1 win at Anfield on the opening day of the 2003/04 season. It was only Chelsea’s second victory at that venue since the 1930s and Abramovich was there to see it, even releasing a statement afterwards which said that he was “very happy”.

A new era had been launched in a style that would become increasingly frequent, even if the Russian billionaire remained a man of few words.

It was also against Liverpool that Abramovich celebrated his first trophy as Chelsea responded to conceding a goal to John Arne Riise in the opening minute of the 2005 Carling Cup Final by going on to win the match 3-2 after extra-time. With Steven Gerrard, who was being pursued by Chelsea at the time, scoring the own goal that brought Chelsea back into the game and Mourinho being sent off for shushing the Liverpool supporters, the dynamics of a mutually antagonistic relationship were established.

Ahead of a Premier League game at Anfield the following season, the stadium DJ played U2’s Vertigo before kick off, presumably out of the hope that Chelsea’s might have been giddy at the summit having built up a nine-point lead over their pursuers, but their head for heights turned out to be strong as Mourinho’s side triumphed 4-1. It was Liverpool’s biggest home loss since 1969 and Chelsea went on to win the league for the second season in succession. Domestic power had shifted.

That was even more evident in the spring of 2010 when Chelsea all but sealed the third Premier League title of the Abramovich era with a 2-0 victory at Anfield which turned out to be Benitez’s last home game in charge. “You’re ancient history,” they Chelsea fans crowed over and over again as the stadium emptied out.

The only consolation for those of a red persuasion was that their team’s loss had all but ended United’s hopes of being crowned champions. Chelsea might have become an irritant, the kind that could trump your past with their present, but they remained very much the lesser of two evils.

Chelsea might have become an irritant, the kind that could trump your past with their present, but they remained very much the lesser of two evils.

It was what happened four years later, again at Anfield, that established Chelsea as an even greater thorn in Liverpool’s side than United currently are even if their rivalry will never be anywhere near as deep or as entrenched.

Victory would have taken Liverpool another step to their first title since 1990 and on the back of a run of 14 wins and two draws in their previous 16 league games, the odds were stacked in favour of the hosts. With Mourinho demonstrating that the looming Champions League semi-final second leg against Atletico Madrid was his priority by fielding a largely second-string side, all seemed set for a Liverpool pre-coronation party.

Unlike Chelsea in 2010, though, Liverpool couldn’t get the result they needed when it mattered most and while a piqued Brendan Rodgers rounded on Mourinho for “parking two buses” and not playing fair, this was a defeat, perhaps more than any other, which highlighted why the fortunes of the two clubs have gone in different directions since Roman’s conquest. While Abramovich’s win at all costs outlook has changed the mentality of his club, the three sets of owners who have been in charge at Anfield during the same period have been unable to engender a similarly ruthless edge.

What makes it all so much worse for Liverpool is they could have ended Chelsea’s Russian revival before it had even begun. Had they performed with Goliath’s might on that day in May 2003, they could have got the win that they needed to qualify for the Champions League at Chelsea’s expense and in doing so, if the prevailing logic is accurate, ended Abramovich’s interest in buying them. As it was, they allowed a 1-0 lead to slip as goals from Marcel Desailly and Jesper Gronkjaer, thus changed the course of Chelsea’s history.

“You have to learn from the past and look to the future; that’s the way to success,” Gerard Houllier said afterwards. The problem is that in the intervening years, Liverpool do not appear to have taken sufficient heed of that lesson and what followed to become successful at their rivals’ expense. Games like Tuesday night’s are the ones that you have to win, not just to stay in the race but also to do damage to your adversary and while Benitez might have been right in his assessment of Chelsea’s rise, so too was Mourinho’s pointed response.

“When you are in a big club you are first or you are nothing, because nothing else matters,” he said. “If you are champions you succeed. If you are not champions you don’t succeed.”

It has been a long time since Liverpool succeeded, far too long in the eyes of their fans, and while it might be too late in the current campaign for a win over Chelsea to prevent the title from going to Stamford Bridge they could at least give rise to hope that David might trade places with Goliath once more.

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