Chelsea inflicted Liverpool’s third loss of the Premier League season on Sunday to reclaim first place from Manchester United and seriously undermine the Reds’ hopes of a first championship crown in 20 years.

Nicolas Anelka and Florent Malouda scored in the second half to secure a 2-0 victory that gives Chelsea a two-point lead over United, which dropped points on Saturday when it drew at home with Sunderland.

“We lost to Wigan, so it was important to win today and beat a direct opponent for the title,” Drogba said. “Tactically it was a very good game for both teams. It’s good to go to the international break with these points and be top of the league.”

Going into the two-week international break Liverpool is fifth, six points adrift of Chelsea, having already lost more times after eight games than the whole of last season when Liverpool finished second.

Not since United in 1967-68 has a team lost three of its opening eight matches and still won the championship.

But manager Rafa Benitez believes Liverpool’s losses won’t harm his side’s title quest as long as they avoid too many draws after being held 11 times last season.

“We have to keep calm and working hard to improve, focusing on the next game,” Benitez said. “This year the top sides will lose points against the other teams.

“We will try to win and as long as we don’t draw as many games as last year we should be OK. It’s a long race.”

Chelsea, which lost twice to Liverpool last season for the first time in 20 years, took 25 minutes to assert itself and test goalkeeper Pepe Reina.

But after headers from Didier Drogba and Anelka the pressure from the Londoners was relentless.

Chelsea’s main threat continued to come from the air with Ballack also coming close with a 34th-minute header from a Deco free kick.

A flurry of Liverpool attacks toward the end of the first-half suggested they might get a breakthrough.

With Petr Cech suspended after being sent off in Chelsea’s loss to Wigan last weekend, Hilario was in goal and did well to block a downward close-range header from Fernando Torres. And while he was late to react to an Albert Riera free kick, the Portuguese keeper managed to turn the low 40-metre (yard) strike wide.

After the break, apart from a swerving shot from Steven Gerrard, it was the Blues who imposed themselves on the game and they finally broke the deadlock in the 60th minute.

Midfielder Frank Lampard stole the ball from Javier Mascherano inside Chelsea’s half, and the Blues rapidly broke forward before Drogba whipped in a precision cross that Anelka swept into the roof of the net.

“When you make a mistake against a good team, you pay for it. We lost the ball and they scored,” Benitez said. “They have quality. It is not easy to stop every single attack.

“We were pushing and attacking then they got the second goal at the end of the game.”

The powerful Drogba was again the provider. With Jamie Carragher tugging at his shirt, Drogba outmuscled the Liverpool centerback and then crossed to Malouda, who beat Reina at the near post from close range.

“It was a good performance, Liverpool are a strong team,” Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti said. “We stayed compact and a good counterattack led to the first goal.

“We got Wigan out of our mind after that game. Today we played very well with good concentration. It was fantastic.”

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