Chelsea’s slender victory against Liverpool displayed the difference between a potential title contender, and a side heading in that direction. Chelsea’s cautious performance provided a short period in the first half that saw Jose Mourinho’s men produce their best football since his return.
Liverpool’s lack of squad depth forced Brendan Rodgers into making one change to the side that lost at the Ethiad Stadium – the Reds were without Steven Gerrard and Daniel Sturridge, while Victor Moses was ineligible to feature. On the other hand, Mourinho had the luxury of tinkering with his starting lineup, recalling Cesar Azpilicueta, Gary Cahill, Willian and Frank Lampard.
The away side fortuitously took the lead in the opening three minutes, due to poor set-piece defending from Mourinho’s men. Both sides have experienced difficulties defending set-pieces this season, so this was a logical point of attack to exploit – Martin Skrtel pounced on a loose ball in the box – that Branislav Ivanovic failed to clear – and tapped it into an open goal from six-yards out.
Similar to their victory against Southampton, Chelsea responded well. However, Liverpool’s work ethic without the ball in the opening minutes of the match frustrated Mourinho’s men. Raheem Sterling and Phillipe Coutinho quickly closed down Chelsea’s fullbacks, and Luis Suarez worked tirelessly against John Terry and Gary Cahill, but the problem was in midfield.
Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson looked weary and sluggish throughout the match, as they half-heartedly pressed Chelsea’s midfield. David Luiz and Frank Lampard adopted deep positions in midfield and freely played passes around the pitch, while Willian, Oscar and Hazard drifted infield, and successfully operated between the lines. The buildup to Hazard’s equalizer witnessed Chelsea’s three creators combine in central areas, and Oscar’s powerful run led to Hazard’s curling effort.
Liverpool was overrun in midfield at certain points during the first half, and their attempt to replicate this feat failed. Coutinho drifted infield to help his side control the midfield – with Allen pushing into an advanced position on the right – but the Brazilian’s final ball was consistently poor. Suarez was merely an isolated figure in the opening half, as Cahill and Terry closely monitored his movement around the final third.
Chelsea’s success was also down to their pressing – Mourinho’s men limited Liverpool’s ability to play out of the back, and it also prevented their midfield from developing a fluid passing rhythm. Whenever Rodgers’ men evaded Chelsea’s press, they struggled to get behind the Chelsea defence, or create legitimate goal scoring opportunities.
Mourinho was forced to introduce Ashley Cole midway through the half, which pushed Azpilicueta to right-back. Although Coutinho occasionally closed down Ivanovic, the Chelsea defender rarely surged forward. Azpilicueta had different intentions – he ventured forward at the first opportunity presented, and his cross found Oscar, who snuck past Mamadou Sakho and played a ball across the box, which Eto’o directed past Simon Mignolet.
There was a significant decline in Chelsea’s attacking impetus in the second half, and Liverpool began to pose a threat in the attacking third. Sterling scampered down the right flank admirably, Sakho’s header – from a Henderson cross – rattled the crossbar, and Petr Cech saved Suarez’s tame volley.
Unlike Mourinho, Rodgers doesn’t possess legitimate game changers on the bench and he was forced to hand a debut to 19-year-old Brad Smith for the injured Allen, as Liverpool became a 3-5-2. Liverpool’s wingbacks pushed into advanced positions out wide, thus pegging Chelsea’s creators into deeper positions. Coutinho began to drop into better positions in the final third, and Suarez effortlessly ran the channels, but apart from two penalty cries – Eto’o’s clip being his only legitimate shout – Liverpool didn’t come close to an equalizer.
Liverpool’s overachievement in the first half of the season has been derailed over the Christmas period; while they do possess an exciting starting eleven, Rodgers’ side doesn’t possess the depth required to secure a Premier League crown, and possibly a Champions League spot.