Robbie Moore wades through yesterday’s disappointing home loss to Chelsea.
Mourinho arrived with a game plan and it paid off as Liverpool struggled to break them down.
Liverpool’s seemingly unstoppable title charge finally gave way at the hands of a tactically ugly Chelsea side who’s game plan went exactly as Jose Mourinho had hoped, but to an even greater extent than he could have wished for as Liverpool, quite literally, slipped up at a vital time. Everyone could have predicted how Chelsea were going to play, but not many saw it playing out so effectively, especially at such an atmospheric and expectant Anfield.
The rampant Liverpool were unchanged (4-3-3) from the team that earned 3 important points at Norwich last time out, although prolific striker, and former Blue, Daniel Sturridge returned to the match day squad by taking a place on the bench following his recovery from a hamstring injury.
As for the visitors, Mourinho had already suggested he would play a weakened team in this potential title decider, and he was true to his word to some extent. It’s difficult to play a ‘weak’ team with the resources the Portuguese coach has at his disposal, however his starting XI certainly looked significantly different to the side that lost 2-1 to Sunderland a week before with 7 changes being made by Mourinho. The changes made up a 4-2-3-1, which became a 4-5-1 at times. Some of these were forced, as John Terry, Petr Cech and Eden Hazard had all suffered recent injuries. As a result, 20-year-old Czech defender Tomas Kalas was awarded his debut on an undoubtedly massive stage.
Liverpool, as per usual, started quickly but soon discovered that Chelsea had indeed come to Anfield to park the figurative bus. Inevitably, Liverpool found it nigh-on impossible to break down Chelsea’s 9-man defence. Surprisingly though, it was the Blues who had the first sight of goal in the match, as Ashley Cole let fly from some range and managed to test Simon Mignolet in front of the Kop, with the Belgian able to parry it away. Meanwhile, Liverpool’s first infiltration of the Chelsea back line came in the 10th minute when Luis Suarez, with incredible vision, found a rushing Coutinho at the far post but the Brazilian could only volley the ball into the side netting; a warning shot for Chelsea, who’s defence would have to hang on against the most lethal strike force in the Premier League to begin to contemplate earning a result.
Could the bus stay parked? It was looking unlikely, as Liverpool continued to carve out opportunities. One such chance came in the 13th minute. Mamadou Sakho retrieved a deep corner and whipped it back into Suarez, whose volleyed cross went straight back to the Frenchman, but the centre back blazed well over from 6 yards out. Chelsea couldn’t afford to give the Reds anymore chances like that.
As time went by, however, the cliché bus was growing roots. For all their dominance and probing, Liverpool were finding clear cut chances harder and harder to come by. Probe, probe, probe. Clearance, clearance, clearance. It wasn’t until the 41st minute before Liverpool came close again. Suarez cut inside and unleashed a curling effort from outside the area, but the attempt drifted just over Mark Schwarzer’s bar. In the second minute of first half stoppage time, Chelsea finally stretched their attacking legs, as debutant Kalas headed a corner goal-bound, but his contact wasn’t solid enough.
As the game wound down for half time, an unexpected disaster struck. Steven Gerrard received the ball under no immediate pressure, so when he slipped and allowed Demba Ba in on goal there was an obvious air of disbelief, and a more obvious air of heartbreak. Of all the people to make a vital error on a day such as this, the Liverpool legend and skipper was that man. The in form striker charged on towards the Kop End goal and slid the ball under the onrushing Mignolet. Chelsea can’t have believed their luck; not only had they held on against the menacing Liverpudlian attack, they had also earned the lead through the most fortuitous of events.
Shortly afterwards, the whistle for half time sounded, ending a hard-to-watch 45 minutes in which Chelsea had deployed their unattractive yet well performed game plan to great effect. Liverpool hadn’t done too much different than usual. It was Chelsea’s double decker that had prevented them looking threatening. No one had really done much to lighten the game up, Suarez and Sterling’s magic had been suffocated, while Chelsea defenders had just been dealing with an out of sorts attack. That been said, young Kalas had proved himself in high-pressure circumstances thus far which would give the centre back a huge confidence boost ahead of the second half.
Liverpool started the second half as they had the first, only this time they nearly broke through immediately. Had Lucas and Suarez not confused one another Suarez could have reached his own pass into the box. This was followed by a deflected Gerrard strike that nearly caught Schwarzer out in the 55th minute.
3 minutes later, Lucas was pulled off after a poor performance for Sturridge; a popular substitution to say the least. Immediately after, Mourinho brought on Willian for Salah. Meanwhile, a Joe Allen shot from distance could have snuck in had Schwarzer not dived down quickly to his left. Liverpool were certainly in control but, similar to in the first half, Chelsea didn’t look like they would be conceding any time soon.
After Philippe Coutinho volleyed a weak effort into the Kop, Schurrle cut inside from the left before pulling the trigger on a shot that had Mignolet stretching – the Reds’ keeper again doing his job well to deny the Chelsea man. As the second half wore on, the Chelsea back line dropped deeper as well as becoming tighter. By the time Gary Cahill replaced Schurrle to make it a 5-man defence, Liverpool had been reduced to uncharacteristic crosses and long shots. One such cross from Suarez found Gerrard in space, but his header couldn’t generate enough power to trouble Schwarzer. Another, this time from Coutinho, seemed destined for Suarez but the Uruguayan couldn’t quite reach the ball in. In the last 10 minutes Brendan Rodgers brought Iago Aspas on for Jon Flanagan, who had impressed again at left back. If it wasn’t already, this was certainly kitchen-sink-throwing time. At this point, Liverpool only had 3 at the back.
With 5 minutes left, Anfield villain Fernando Torres was introduced in place of potential match winner Demba Ba. Surely it was too late for the Spaniard to have an impact though.
Well, apparently not. Liverpool’s utter dominance came to nothing, after a succession of corners had petered out, including a comical shocker from Aspas. Then Torres picked the ball up following a Willian pass. In the blink of an eye the attacking pair were alone in Liverpool’s half with Mignolet an isolated figure as Torres squared it to Willian in the box, who tapped it into an open net, affectively ending any hopes of Liverpool taking a positive result.
And that’s how it ended: 2-0 to Chelsea, who wrestled their way back into the title race with a meticulous, though unflattering, tactical display.
It was a scrappy affair, with two styles of play colliding, which made for quite an unattractive match at times. Mark Schwarzer was arguably Chelsea’s best player, and was certainly the most involved even if he was never tested to a huge extent. Demba Ba, not including the goal, caused Sakho problems all afternoon. Despite this, he didn’t have much attacking intent bar that vital goal. As for Liverpool, it is usually difficult to select one star performer when the team generally work so effectively together. This was somewhat different to the norm. Jon Flanagan was impressive, so the youngster can consider himself unlucky to be sacrificed for Aspas in the closing stages. Joe Allen was another stand out performer. The Welshman was one of Liverpool’s few creative influences in the final third and tested Schwarzer more than anyone with a long distance strike that forced the second choice stopper into a smart save. However, Tomas Kalas, on his debut, never put a foot wrong and can be proud of the performance he put in, especially as Chelsea relied so heavily upon their defence during the 90 minutes; the only truly outstanding performance of the day.
It was unexpected elation for the Blues, as they strive to win a Champions League and Premier league double. As for Liverpool, the players, club and especially the fans had been so convinced that this was finally their year that it was heartbreakingly painful to see it fall out of their own hands in such fashion, against such bitter rivals too.
It’s not over, but it’s Manchester City who occupy the driving seat now.