* January 20, 2015: Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea
May 11, 2016: Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea
January 31, 2017: Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea
November 25, 2017: Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea
The only difference this time was that the home side scored first. When Liverpool host Chelsea, you know what to expect. Anyone not placing their money accordingly hadn’t done their homework.
More importantly, we also expect matches to be tight between the best teams in the Premier League. Their growing dominance over the rest of the division makes intra-top-six matches all the more important, thus making risk-averse tactics logical. When defeats are sold as crises with impatience constantly on the rise, draws are not bad results against fellow elite clubs.
These games now fall into two distinct categories. The first is when one team capitulates almost from the start, such as Liverpool away at Tottenham or Arsenal at Liverpool. If that doesn’t happen, and an early goal isn’t scored, both teams size each other up.
In the last six matches between the big six, only one goal has been scored in the first 35 minutes of the game, De Bruyne’s against Arsenal. If what you want is goals, it’s almost worth starting to watch these matches at half-time.
* Yet Liverpool will obviously be the more disappointed team, having taken the game to Chelsea and come within a few minutes of home victory. The equalising goal came via fluke rather than defensive calamity, but there ends a run of four successive home clean sheets to accompany their midweek collapse against Sevilla. It was no surprise that Klopp moaned about the defensive tactics of the opposition, but this was merely a man airing his frustration.
This is also the fifth time this season that Klopp’s team have dropped points from a winning position, a reflection of their defensive carelessness. These are the spurned opportunities that are rued in April and May.
* Antonio Conte has taken every possible opportunity to lament Chelsea’s fixture scheduling and did so again following a long trip to Azerbaijan, but there isn’t really anything that can be done. The fixtures lists for the Premier League were scheduled before the Champions League group stage draw and BT Sport have the right to choose any game they please for their 5.30pm slot on a Saturday.
If Conte does have a gripe, it should be with his club. You can’t sign a broadcasting deal that ensures you are given tens of millions of pounds in revenue only to moan when your team’s matches are chosen for television coverage.
Still, while Conte might not have a leg to stand on, there is an issue here. Liverpool vs Chelsea was comfortably the biggest Premier League match of this weekend, but the quality of football on offer was affected by the absence of key players from the starting XIs. If you were a Liverpool supporter attending a match at Anfield for the first time, you would be upset to miss out on seeing Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane for more than three minutes between them, for instance. Cesc Fabregas was another surprise absentee.
“It’s normal rotation,” said Conte on Fabregas’ omission. “We need to have rotation. Fabregas has played every game this season and this choice is right – I hope.”
This is the result of hands being tied over scheduling. When teams play high-intensity fixtures or make long return journeys after Wednesday fixtures and play on Saturday rather than Sunday, it is only natural that managers will make changes. Muscle injuries are the punishment for getting it wrong.
* The first half became an absorbing individual contest between Mohamed Salah and Eden Hazard, the dominant members of their team’s attack. Salah had four of Liverpool’s six first-half shots, while Hazard created three chances before the break and only Davide Zappacosta had more touches of the ball for Chelsea.
There are worse contests to watch. Hazard has an exceptional ability to nudge the ball away from his opponent in a style that reminds of Lionel Messi, while Salah causes excitement every time he gets on the ball, particularly at Anfield. A buzz goes around the home crowd when he receives possession.
* There were two penalty appeals before the break, and both had some merit. Hazard hardly bothered to hide his shove on Philippe Coutinho, and his teammates looked nervously around towards Michael Oliver.
Yet Chelsea’s appeal was far stronger, and I think they were unfortunate. Hazard’s corner prompted the type of goalmouth scramble that was far more commonplace in the 1990s than today, and in the melee Joe Gomez tackled Alvaro Morata from behind. The right-back did get a touch of the ball, but made contact with the player first. Had it occurred outside of such a manic period of play, perhaps referee Oliver would have spotted it?
* Danny Drinkwater started his first league game for Chelsea alongside his former Leicester City teammate N’Golo Kante, but he actually had far more attacking licence than we expected. Twice Drinkwater was the midfielder running beyond the last man, and it caught Liverpool off guard. Klopp probably expected that Tiemoue Bakayoko would have that responsibility.
As well as pushing forward, Drinkwater’s other action of note was to inexplicably avoid a booking for his foul on Alberto Moreno, a literally laughable decision when you watched the replay.
On BT Sport, Steve McManaman claimed that it looked worse than it was because “Moreno flies up into the air”. Yes Macca, because Drinkwater kicked him there.
* For £35million, Salah truly is one of the bargains of the summer in world football. If there is a premium on Premier League players, it clearly doesn’t apply to those who have previous experience of this league. Not only is Liverpool’s forward the top scorer in the division, he has also been its best attacking player not called Kevin de Bruyne.
It’s something that was mentioned in Winners and Losers on Monday, but it is astonishing how quickly Salah has become so dominant in this Liverpool attack. Last season, Mane and Coutinho each scored 13 league goals for Liverpool, while Firmino got 11. The expectation was that Salah would take his place in that group, chipping in like all the others.
As it happens, Salah is currently on track to score 29 league goals. Rather than simply operating as a wide forward, he is now playing more as a central striker or false nine, drifting wide but also sitting on the shoulder of the last man and receiving the ball into feet in the penalty area. His strength on the ball has increased at least tenfold since leaving Chelsea.
The statistics are ridiculous. Against Chelsea, Salah had seven shots; no other Liverpool player had more than two. He is responsible for 32% of Liverpool’s shots on target in the league this season, 24% of all their touches in the opposition penalty area and has scored or assisted 48% of their league goals.
Liverpool have had 61 shots on target from inside the penalty area this season, and Salah has had 24. Second on that list are Mane and Firmino, with seven.
* The initial thought was that Salah’s non-celebration – or at least muted celebration – was a show of respect to his former club Chelsea, who sold him after only six appearances. That provoked the angry accusations of “game’s gone”.
However, the truth is slightly different. Salah did indeed not celebrate his goal, but on Saturday 300 people were killed in a terrorist attack in his home country. The lack of expressed joy was to show solidarity for those affected.
It is not the first time that Salah has done this. When at Fiorentina in 2015, he scored the day after 20 Egyptian supporters were killed at a football match. Salah is the leader of his sporting nation, and behaves accordingly.
* At the risk of being the old man shouting at clouds, there is nothing that depresses me more than the tens of phones and tablets that appear in the crowd every time an attacking set-piece is about to be taken. On go the flashes, creating a lightshow of the homemade filmmaker.
I just don’t understand. Do these people have short-term memory loss, and therefore must replay the goals on a loop to remember the result? Are they also unaware of the concept of television and Youtube, thus ensuring that their videography is not required to document this piece of sporting history?
Most people are fortunate enough to be born with two things on the front of their head which allow them to visually witness an event. Most people are fortunate enough to be born with two things on the side of their head which allow them to aurally witness an event. Most people are fortunate enough to be born with something inside their head which allows them to later recall the visual and aural aspects of that event. I highly recommend using all three.
Honestly, football is absolutely magnificent. Celebrating a goal scored by your team is a moment of pure ecstasy, sometimes the zenith of your week. Why on earth would you want to be one of a hundred people recording it on your phone rather than committing to the moment entirely?
* We can now surely confirm that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who joined Liverpool with the intention of re-establishing himself as a central midfielder, is now a wide forward. If Jurgen Klopp picks both Coutinho and him in the same side and yet still plays Coutinho in a deeper role than Oxlade-Chamberlain, that is the only conclusion we can draw.
The problem for Oxlade-Chamberlain is that he has little chance of becoming first choice in that role, given Liverpool’s options, and the same applies with England. He did not play particularly poorly against Chelsea, and got an assist for Salah’s goal, but simply doesn’t offer the penetration of Mane nor the goal threat of Firmino.
* Watching Jordan Henderson in a personal duel with Kante is like watching a hungover uncle trying to deal with a wriggly toddler intent on finding mischief. There was a moment in the second half when Kante surged past the Liverpool captain, who was barely even able to bring him to the floor in time. It was enough to give you horrible daydreams about the World Cup next summer.
* For all Conte’s gripes about the lack of strength in depth within his squad, this was the third time this season that Chelsea have saved the game with players coming off the bench. Goals from Michy Batshuayi won matches against Watford and Atletico Madrid. Against Liverpool, the introduction of Fabregas and Willian turned the game on its head.
I’m almost tempted to call Fabregas Chelsea’s best performer against Liverpool, such was his impact on the game’s result. Suddenly there were probing passes through to Hazard and Morata. Suddenly there were ranging cross-field passes perfectly weighted to allow an attacking midfielder or forward to surge forward and meet the ball. Suddenly there was an exactness to Chelsea’s midfield.
“Fabregas has played every game this season and this choice is right – I hope,” to repeat that pre-match Conte quote. If he was right, it is only part-vindication. Chelsea’s wonderful midfielder is enjoying another wonderful season. If he was fit, why on earth would you not start him?
* Although Chelsea were transformed after the substitutions, it was a piece of outrageous fortune that sealed their point. The commentators labelled it an “audacious” equaliser, but that hints at a deliberate act. Willian was attempting to cross the ball to the back post and instead saw it sail over Simon Mignolet.
Mignolet could have done without another high-profile incident which ended in him picking the ball out of the Liverpool net, but he can hardly be blamed. A goalkeeper has to anticipate a cross in order to claim it, and he had stepped two yards off his line. Only a mishit fluke could make him look foolish. Step forward Willian, who at least had the decency to look surprised as he celebrated.
* I don’t think I’m alone in wondering quite what it is that Bakayoko is supposed to do? He seems to have at least one characteristic from each of Chelsea’s other central midfielders, but only at the level to make him a Jack of all trades.
Worse still, Bakayoko always seems to be front and centre when something goes wrong, epitomised by his part in Liverpool’s goal. There is a clunkiness to his work, as if he is struggling for confidence after a big-money move.
Forty-four touches of the ball, despite playing 77 minutes in central midfield. The worst passing accuracy of all three Chelsea midfielders. One off-target shot and no chances created. One tackle. One header won. It’s all just a bit meh. With Drinkwater again fit and used to playing alongside Kante successfully, Bakayoko must use that competition for places to drive him on.
* Although he was not the game’s best player (Salah and Cesar Azpilicueta can fight over that), a word for Gomez. Having been picked in central defence and named Man of the Match in that position, Gomez was put back at full-back for his club to cover for Nathaniel Clyne’s injury. Against Chelsea, he had Eden Hazard drifting out wide and Marcos Alonso pushing on, but dealt with both superbly despite the first-half penalty snafu.
Although the uncertainty over his best position could cause Gomez a problem in the future (can he be taken to the World Cup as a central defender if he isn’t playing there for his club?), this versatility is an attractive quality in a young defender. Full-back and centre-back require different skill sets, but Gomez is demonstrating that he has the all-round game to cope with both.
Gomez is far from the complete player yet but, at 20 and having suffered a serious injury, he should be proud of his comeback. It has required the misfortune of others for him to be given his chance, but such is life. Gomez has made the most of the opportunity.
* And if Gomez needs a role model for how to play at full-back and in central defence and look magnificent in both, he should follow the lead of Azpilicueta. The Spaniard is the port in every Chelsea storm.
Azpilicueta has now started 74 consecutive Premier League games and has played 7,881 of Chelsea’s last 8,100 league minutes in a run stretching back to May 2015. Given Chelsea’s participation in Europe, title challenges and going deep into domestic cup competitions, that is an extraordinary feat.
Still, consistency of selection is nothing without achievement, and Azpilicueta ranks highly there too. The blend of composure under pressure and willingness to throw himself in front of shots to save his team is extremely endearing. That he only has seven competitive appearances in international football is almost unbelievable.
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