* A 1-1 away draw at Stamford Bridge should never be considered a bad result, but Brendan Rodgers must be cursing his team’s inability to take advantage of Chelsea’s midweek holiday. Some of Jose Mourinho’s players had only returned to training on Friday afternoon and it showed, particularly after the break.
Liverpool are now six points behind Manchester United with two games to play. They need United to lose at home to Arsenal and away at Hull whilst they beat Crystal Palace and Stoke. They also need to effect a 14-goal swing for good measure.
Sorry, but it’s just not going to happen. Not a chance. One win from eight against the top four sides for Liverpool this season underlines how far they must travel to get back amongst the Premier League elite.
Rodgers must now accept that he has taken his side significantly backwards over the course of this season, having done the opposite in the previous campaign. The benefits of Champions League football are vastly reduced if you give it up so limply after one season.
* One suspects Mourinho was privately frustrated by the lethargy of Chelsea’s performance – that’s the mindset of a perfectionist.
It does, however, continue his astonishing record against the best teams in the Premier League. Since the beginning of last season, Chelsea’s record against Manchester United, Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool reads: Played 16, won nine, drawn seven, lost 0. They have conceded only eight goals in those 16 matches.
This was not a day to learn anything new about Chelsea other than the emergence of one of their young starlets, but their last game of the season against a top four rival ends in the same manner as all the others. Unbeaten, as ever.
* With Diego Costa again struggling for fitness (and presumably not to be risked before the end of the season), Mourinho chose Loic Remy to lead the line, flanked by Eden Hazard and Willian. The injury to Oscar meant that Jose also gave a first senior start to Ruben Loftus-Cheek. He played alongside Jon Obi Mikel in midfield with Cesc Fabregas pushed further forward.
In March, Mourinho declared himself impressed by Loftus-Cheek, still just 19. “I had him on the bench and I have to say that, in my opinion, next year, this kid will be a big surprise in the Premier League,” Mourinho said after the win over West Ham on March 4.
“This season, if I was not playing for the title and if we were not playing with the pressure we have when you are playing for the title, this kid would already be on the pitch.” He stayed true to his word. As soon as Chelsea were no longer competing for the title, into the fray came the young midfielder.
The big news in Liverpool’s team came courtesy of Rickie Lambert starting over Mario Balotelli. The Italian failed to even make the matchday squad, but Rodgers confirmed before the game that this was not due to injury. Instead, 18-year-old Jerome Sinclair was included as a substitute.
“No, no injury,” said Rodgers. “Mario just isn’t in the squad today.” Confirmation (as if we needed it) that the relationship between player and manager has completely soured. It’s only eight months since Rodgers was talking up Balotelli’s move to Anfield.
* I’m all for sportsmanship and fair play, but they have to come organically rather than be manufactured. Is there anything more ludicrous than forcing a team to give the newly crowned champions a guard of honour?
The Premier League title race is won over 38 matches against 19 different teams. Why is it that Chelsea’s subsequent opponent after they clinch the title should offer them official congratulations? Of course they may choose to do so in private, but any obligation for politeness becomes defunct. Lifting the trophy is all that matters to Chelsea, not empty platitudes from those defeated.
Chelsea captain John Terry even admitted as much. “Very uncomfortable actually,” Terry said when asked about his feelings on the ritual. “Because they’re fellow professionals and fellow peers, it seems a bit strange for them to be standing out. I think both sides will be a bit uncomfortable.”
His feelings were shared by Jose Mourinho. “I don’t like it,” he said this week. “I think in Spain they did it for us at Real Madrid. If it’s tradition, that’s no problem for me. You can show respect for the winner in many different ways. If some of them don’t want to be there and they are there just because somebody tells them to be there, maybe it’s a bit artificial.”
Those giving it don’t want it, those receiving it don’t want it and those watching treat it as an amusing, but meaningless, sideshow. Can we remove the need for such vacuous nonsense from now on?
* The game’s first talking point came inside the first minute, with Fabregas booked for his foul on Raheem Sterling. We’ll give Chelsea’s midfielder the benefit of the doubt and call it mistimed, particularly coming so early in the game. But it really was a bad tackle.
Mercifully, Sterling was able to continue, but that was down only to great fortune. His studs slid slightly across the grass after contact; if they had stuck fast in the ground his ankle would have been broken. Fabregas was slightly lucky to only see a yellow card.
* Less than four minutes later, Chelsea had the lead. Just another set-piece goal conceded by Liverpool.
Fabregas’ corner was swung in from the right-hand side, and John Terry was able to find space eight yards out with frightening ease. The Chelsea captain’s header made him the highest-scoring defender in Premier League history. Unlike many on that list, none of them have been penalties.
It was also Fabregas’ 18th assist of a wonderful season, putting him two behind the all-time record set by Thierry Henry. Both Terry and Fabregas owe thanks to Lambert for his appalling marking.
Before Fabregas could bask in the glory, he was fortunate not to be sent off. His tug on Sterling’s shorts didn’t cause the fall that was forthcoming from the winger, but it was certainly a foul. If Andre Marriner had given the free-kick he would have had a tough call to make. His inadequacies saved him from the dilemma.
* Having dominated possession and territory during the first half, Chelsea promptly let Liverpool equalise thanks to some shoddy set-piece marking of their own.
The first blame lies with Branislav Ivanovic, a much-regressed right-back this season. Having robbed the ball from Adam Lallana, Ivanovic attempted to win a goal-kick by cannoning the ball off the Liverpool man. He succeeded only in keeping the ball in play, before pulling down Lallana as he nicked the ball and moved towards goal. The Serbian’s tenth booking of the season, and an all-too-familiar hand held up in apology to either official or teammate.
Chelsea’s defensive slackness was not finished there. Jordan Henderson’s delivery to the back post found Steven Gerrard in space to nod past Thibaut Courtois. Both Mikel and Gary Cahill (on as a substitute for the injured Kurt Zouma) should share the blame, but the Nigerian was originally supposed to pick up Gerrard.
With Mourinho’s insistence that Loftus-Cheek will be part of his first-team plans next season, it is finally time for the comically underwhelming Mikel to move on. It is ridiculous that he is Chelsea’s longest-serving player after Terry and Petr Cech.
* The pattern of the game changed in the second half, as Liverpool went for broke and Chelsea were happy to take their foot off the pedal. Both Sterling and Lallana were given the space to dribble forward, with Philippe Coutinho, Lambert and Skrtel guilty of missing chances. Coutinho was their best player again, dictating the tempo and finding pockets of space in front of Chelsea’s defence.
When Liverpool weren’t being let down by their finishing, it was the final ball that was found wanting. The frustration with obviously talented footballers badly over-hitting crosses knows no bounds.
Hazard was the epitome of Chelsea’s relaxed mood. He lost possession on multiple occasions, even drawing groans from the Stamford Bridge crowd. When you allow your energy levels to drop by even 5%, the results are obvious at the highest level.
We have grown so accustomed to seeing Hazard dribbling in full flight down the left wing this season, but those wings were self-clipped in the second half. That is the luxury afforded to the champions.
* “I feel a bit for Rickie [Lambert] because there’s been a lot of talk about that and it’s as though he’s here because it’s a great romantic story. But he’s here because he’s a great player. I’ve really been impressed with him for years in the Premier League. I watched him at lower level and he’s always had talent, but he’s narrowed his focus the last few years. He’s a Kopite, he’s got the tattoo and he’s a real passionate Scouse guy, but he’s here because he’s a fantastic footballer” – Brendan Rodgers, July 31.
Less than ten months later, those claims from Rodgers look risible. Lambert struggled from his position as a lone striker, but it would still be good to see some semblance of fitness or quality. There were times when I assumed Lambert was jogging, but then you see the sweat pouring from his face and realise that it was actually a sprint. On more than one occasion his teammates played the ball ahead of him, assuming that their striker would run onto the ball. A foolish assumption.
Clearly Liverpool made more expensive mistakes than Lambert last summer, but to include him as one of four striking options (and Fabio Borini as another) when not intending to play him with a strike partner made it a ludicrous decision. Such a ‘great player’ has been completely misused. The result is an unfit, rusty forward who will presumably be allowed to slip out of Anfield’s back door this summer.
It’s also impossible not to mention Daniel Sturridge when discussing Liverpool’s inadequacies in front of goal. The England forward’s hip operation means he will turn 26 in September having made just 91 career league starts. On Sunday, Hazard made his 213th and Courtois his 183rd. That hammers home Sturridge’s injury problems – 29% of his career league starts came last season.
The official line is that Sturridge will be back fit in September, but Liverpool must ignore that claim. Given his unreliability during his career, the striker’s fitness next season (and beyond) must be considered a bonus. If he is in form and fit then he will play, but that’s an “if” growing with each passing knock.
That raises an alarming scenario for Liverpool this summer. Sturridge crocked, Lambert not good enough, Balotelli being moved on and Borini below the standard required. Brendan Rodgers is looking for four strikers rather than one replacement for Luis Suarez.
* This was also not a good afternoon for Lallana, celebrating his 27th birthday at Stamford Bridge. To think that he is six years the senior of Memphis Depay. Lallana is at an age when we can no longer talk of potential, but end product. That has been sadly lacking during his first season at Anfield.
Lallana looked lost in the first half against Ivanovic, unable to find a way past his marker and booked for his challenge on the same player. He improved after the break, but it was at that point that Rodgers chose to withdraw him. Another uninspiring display.
It is not that Lallana has been dreadful at Liverpool, and he has suffered with a series of niggling injuries. But even when fit we have seen so precious little of the Southampton form that persuaded Liverpool to part with £27m last summer. Like Rodgers, he must hit the ground running in August.
* Loftus-Cheek deserves great praise for his senior debut, brought off after an hour by his manager in favour of Nemanja Matic. He looked assured in central midfield (certainly more than Ramires and Mikel), completing every single one of his 27 passes. No Chelsea player made more tackles than him during that hour.
“I took him off because I want him to perform well,” said Mourinho after the game. “I think that in that later period he might suffer a bit with Liverpool having the ball and the intensity of the game. So I’d rather give him a good hour than a bad 75 or 90 minutes. He understood what the Premier League was and for a debut it couldn’t be better.”
It’s important to note that the midfielder is only one of a number of academy graduates likely to threaten the Chelsea first team in the next couple of years. Their lack of homegrown players is regularly sneered at, but snide smiles may soon be wiped from faces. Dominic Solanke, Tammy Abraham, Andreas Christensen, Jeremie Boga and Isaiah Brown will surely be the next along the production line.
* As the game reached a fairly meek conclusion, Gerrard was substituted and received a standing ovation from sections of the Stamford Bridge support. This is the first time that the Stevie G farewell tour has really clicked into gear rather than being driven by media narrative. I can’t pretend that it didn’t feel a little weird.
When asked in his post-match interview why his captain had been substituted, Rodgers admitted that it was through reasons of romance. “Steven has worked brilliantly and it was more just to give him the acclaim on what will probably be the last time he played at Stamford Bridge,” said Rodgers.
Forgive me for my pedantry, but this wasn’t a friendly. Liverpool needed to win to keep alive their realistic hopes of finishing in the top four, so why on earth would you make that decision at such a ludicrous time? And what on earth is so special about an ovation at Stamford bloody Bridge?
Mourinho also piled on the #classytouches, talking again about Gerrard as the “best enemy” and claiming he will miss the Liverpool captain next season.
Thankfully, the player himself brought us back into football reality. Asked about the reaction from Chelsea’s supporters, Gerrard smiled wryly.
“I was more happy with the applause from the Liverpool fans,” he said. “The Chelsea fans have slaugtered me all game and given me a standing ovation for a couple of minutes. Nice of them to turn up today, for once.” Burn.
* For Chelsea’s players, this was the only time that such lassitude will be forgiven by their manager.
“It was a good performance considering the limitations,” Mourinho said in his post-match interview. “It is normal after winning the title that you lose intensity and mental approach, but we worked hard to have the players at a positive level and competing.
“In the second half I think we physically went a bit down. Some of those players, Ruben, Mikel, Filipe Luis, they haven’t played too much, and some of them have played too much. It was important not to lose and to show Liverpool, Manchester United and the rest of the Premier League that we have the dignity to try and get a result.”
Jose’s right, too. Chelsea had earned the right to have an off day. Just don’t expect any tolerance of that come August.
* Instead this was all about Liverpool, and the question of whether this season has any lasting repercussions. With failure to qualify for the Champions League must come the fall-out. Rodgers has become the preacher of decreasing ambitions.
“Luis going doesn’t lessen our ambitions – we want to continually improve. We will go and do our best. Our best last year nearly won us the title. It’s going to be competitive because everyone is strengthening but the beauty is we are a young group and will progress again. It will be a really exciting season and this year we will have the belief to go with the quality” – Rodgers, July 2014.
“In my short career as a manager I have lost people who I thought would be key players,’ said Rodgers. “But then you go away, reflect and ensure you bring in the right replacement. Always, after that, my teams have been better teams. Believe me, it will be a really exciting season for us” – Rodgers, August 2014.
“There is only an excitement and a belief inside the club that we can challenge again for the title this time. We proved last season that we can handle the pressure of a title run-in. I know people will point to the Chelsea and Crystal Palace games, but they should look instead at our last 14 games. Twelve wins, one draw, one defeat. That kind of form usually wins you the title. So I know we can cope with the pressure” – Rodgers, August 2014.
“If you look at the history of the winning teams they have always come close. You look at the United team that won it in 1993, they came close in 1992 when they lost it to Leeds. They came back the following year and won it – don’t mention that! That set up an era of winning for them. You look at all the teams. There is always a record of coming close as you gain the experience of winning. We went so close but it is only the beginning for us. I’m super hungry to be a champion and succeed and in the short period of time we have shown we have the credentials to do that” – Rodgers, August 2014.
“I don’t think there is anyone better, that is the reality of how I see it. The owners understand that this was going to be a process, this is not a group of ready-made players who were used to winning. This was a team which overachieved last year. We weren’t expected to get into the top four. We sit in fifth place, having reached two cup semi-finals, which is probably on par with where we are at” – Rodgers, April 2015.
Four quotes, each talking up Liverpool as title challengers, all made after the departure of Suarez. The fifth quote, re-writing his own history in bullish fashion. That takes the kind of chutzpah for which the Liverpool manager has become infamous.
The response from Rodgers’ defenders is that he could not have been expected to say anything else. The manager was hardly likely to admit fifth was the best they could hope for last August.
That’s utter nonsense. A large part of management is telling the media exactly what you want them to hear. Talking up title bids is only ever likely to look foolish when they don’t appear. Rodgers displayed far more confidence in his side’s success than Jose Mourinho, Manuel Pellegrini, Arsene Wenger and Louis van Gaal at that time. He is the glaring odd one out, the media magnet unable to help himself in front of a microphone.
* Rodgers is right on one point, however: Liverpool did overachieve last season. The combination of Suarez’s presence, Sturridge’s fitness, Sterling’s brilliance and Rodgers’ own motivational ability created a surge that was only derailed at the final hurdles.
Unfortunately for him, that season irrevocably changed expectations. Rodgers can’t simply ask supporters and media to forget about their brilliant 2013/14, or ask them to offset the failure of this season with the achievement of last; that’s just not how it works. If Garry Monk’s Swansea, Ronald Koeman’s Southampton or Mark Hughes’ Stoke City finish on 20 fewer points next season than they have managed in 2014/15, all of their jobs will be in jeopardy. Particularly if they spend £130m in the summer.
Achievement breeds expectation; always has, always will. Rodgers may well have enough goodwill to last until next season, but he is a fool if he believes that Liverpool will allow him to work on the basis of fifth (and no trophies) as par. Furthermore, asking club, supporters, media and public to write-off the most successful season of your career is a dangerous business. Liverpool must hit the ground running in August.