Thomas Tuchel and his team sent a message to their missing player and Jurgen got a point without having to leave his sickbed, but Pep Guardiola won the match between Chelsea and Liverpool.
1. No other sport can create a level of intensity quite like it, and its brilliance is often a matter of pearls amongst swine. We have to wade through a lot of mediocrity to get to football’s real highs but when they come, particularly in rapid succession, they can leave us slack-jawed and giddy. The first half of the match between Chelsea and Liverpool was like a 45-minute sugar rush, but this high was borne of imperfection. There were defensive slip-ups and questionable refereeing decisions, all played out by two teams not at full strength. The first half of this match was exhausting to watch. Goodness knows what it must have been like to play in.
2. There’d been a lot of comment about Thomas Tuchel’s decision to omit Romelu Lukaku from the Chelsea squad, much of it approving, but it would be remiss not to mention that this came at an obvious risk to both manager and team, and could manifest itself in more than one way. On one level, Lukaku had scored in his previous two matches. His season, particularly bearing in mind his £97.5m transfer fee, has only witnessed modest returns so far, but there had been signs that a corner was being turned with his recent goals and performances. His absence meant that his shadow would loom large over this match, at least at kick-off. As things turned out, few were still talking about Lukaku by half-time.
3. Still, at least Chelsea actually had their manager there. Jurgen Klopp has tested positive for Covid-19, and was therefore absent for this match, with his assistant Pepijn Lijnders taking control for this match. Two days earlier, the club had reported that Thiago Alcantara and Takumi Minamino would be missing with injury, and that three players had tested positive for the virus, who were later identified as Roberto Firmino, Joel Matip and Alisson, replaced in goal by Caoimhín Kelleher, who was making only his second Premier League start of the season. With Reece James, Ben Chilwell and Lukaku all missing for Chelsea, this was a match surrounded by a lot of shadows.
4. Both teams set off at a furious pace, which ending up lasting for the entirety of the first half, and after just six seconds we might even have had a red card, when Sadio Mane jumped into Cesar Azpilicueta while leading with his forearm. It’s easy to be tempted by the idea that this challenge was treated leniently because it came so soon after kick-off. But it seems doubtful that anyone in a position of influence would admit to making a decision like that, since it isn’t in the laws of the game, so it’s back to that ‘spirit of the law’ vs ‘letter of the law’ debate, then. It’s certainly difficult to see how it could be given as a yellow card, especially with VAR supposedly on patrol. Perhaps they were still scrambling to put 50p in the meter.
5. There was little time to dwell upon this, since within 10 minutes Mane had also scored for Liverpool. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, here. Barely a minute earlier, one of the patterns of the game was set when Trent Alexander-Arnold struck the ball straight at Kai Havertz, and it bounced to Christian Pulisic, who tried to take the ball round Kelleher only for the Liverpool goalkeeper to get a hand the ball and scramble it away from him. Liverpool broke, but Jordan Henderson’s cross into the Chelsea penalty area was going nowhere until Trevoh Chalobah inexplicably decided to Phil Jones the ball clear with his head when it was at ankle-height. Mane had work to do upon picking up the ball, but he wrestled it clear of Mendy and wide of the rapidly retreating Azpilicueta.
6. The match would be won by the team that could create the most calm amidst this chaos of players running around the pitch like bumper cars. Every time a player came into possession of the ball, he was immediately shut down. Pulisic was yellow carded for a sliding tackle that nicked the ball from Diogo Jota but also took a piece of the Liverpool player too. After 26 minutes, Mo Salah created one such moment of cool calm in this frantic half, picking up a through-ball from Alexander-Arnold, feinting to leave Alonso behind, and then playing a wonderful finish inside Mendy’s near post when the goalkeeper was clearly expecting a shot across goal. Salah’s movement was wondrous, pulling both the defender and the goalkeeper almost inside-out.
7. There had been little to suggest that Chelsea would turn the match around in the last five minutes before half-time. They’d dominated possession, and it was tempting to lean into the idea that the only difference between the two teams was that Liverpool had Mo Salah and Sadio Mane, whereas Chelsea… well, we all know where that one ends up. But instead, Chelsea’s route back into the game came from the somewhat unlikely source of Mateo Kovacic. There were three minutes to play when a free-kick cracked into the Chelsea wall and up into the stratosphere before being punched clear by Kelleher upon its return. It was a decent punch, but it was fell conveniently for Kovacic, who launched an unstoppable volley back past the goalkeeper and into the top corner of the goal. It was his third Premier League goal in 103 appearances for Chelsea.
8. The reaction to this goal practically lifted the roof off Stamford Bridge, and it’s worth nothing that this was the first Premier League match to have standing spectators under the new pilot scheme that has started across the Premier League and the Championship. Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City and Cardiff City have all been selected, and the intensity of the atmosphere was noted by Sky Sports’ Martin Tyler and Gary Neville.
9. If the first Chelsea goal raised the roof at Stamford Bridge, the second exploded it clean into orbit. Rudiger beat Salah to a bouncing ball on the halfway line and poked it forward to Kante. He lobbed it through to Pulisic, who chested it down on the run and forced it high into the net, redemption for his earlier miss. For all their formidability, Liverpool’s defence has a tendency to do this. They’ve already had this sort of defensive mini-implosion this season several times, against Brentford, West Ham and Spurs. By the end of this one, the score was 2-2 and Stamford Bridge was a screaming bearpit.
10. It is worth reflecting on the absence of Alisson in the Liverpool goal. Shot-stopping is only one string to a goalkeeper’s bow, and one that it is not mentioned that often is their role in organising a defence and keeping everybody in shape. Alisson is one of the very best goalkeepers in the world, and it’s probably not reasonable to expect his number two to be able to bring what he does to the team, but it was noticeable at times that Liverpool’s defenders occasionally didn’t look as sure of themselves as we might normally expect. None of this is intended as criticism of Caoimhín Kelleher in any way. He put in a generally excellent performance and made a couple of good saves, but the assuredness that a goalkeeper like Alisson brings is something that comes with experience and it felt as though he was missed.
11. The pace of the game didn’t slow in the second half, but the quality of chances did. Edouard Mendy made two excellent saves for Chelsea in five minutes, early in the second half, and Kelleher made one himself a few minutes later. But as the second half progressed, the number of clear chances started to dry up a little. Every time the ball got within about thirty yards of goal, the swell of a roar would build up again, only for a cross to be mis-hit or the final pass to be found just a little bit wanting. And that’s the thing about the excitement of the first half. It’s exciting, but it’s fragile. The second half couldn’t quite match the first, as the players started to tire.
12. While ‘Manchester City have won the league already’ remains a little premature for now, it is pretty difficult to see how they’re going to be caught. City are ten points clear of Chelsea, with both having seventeen games left to play. Liverpool are a point behind Chelsea, but have a game in hand on both of the teams above them. Between the two teams at Stamford Bridge, Liverpool look the more likely to keep any dying embers of a championship race going until into the spring, but even they look more likely to combust than Manchester City at the moment. It is true to say that, if anybody did win this match, it was Manchester City. It’s been a very good Christmas for Pep Guardiola.
13. From an entertainment perspective, it certainly felt like nobody missed out on anything from this match as a result of there being a few players absent. The debates over when matches should be postponed or whether there should be a temporary break – or even, as Jurgen Klopp would very much like, a winter break – likely come from places of self-interest, but Liverpool don’t seem to have benefited from the mini-break that they got as a result of their Boxing Day match with Leeds being called off. They’ve only picked up one point from the two matches that they’ve played since then. But these two ‘depleted’ teams playing a fabulously entertaining game of football certainly doesn’t detract from the credibility of the growing school of thought that teams should quit complaining about postponements and just get on with fielding the best available eleven that they can.
14. Pundits need to stop talking about ‘orange cards’, because there’s no such thing. In the studio after this match, Jamie Carragher made this singularly useless point when talking about Sadio Mane’s early challenge on Azpilicueta. It’s a cop out of a response, when the decision between a red card and a yellow card is a binary one on the part of the referee. Carragher may well have taken this position because Sadio Mane is a Liverpool player, or he might not. Even if we understand that his own judgement of such an incident may be clouded by club allegiance, he should at least come off the fence and say red or yellow, rather than brandishing a third coloured card, which doesn’t actually exist.
15. For all the talk of attackers, defences are important, and neither manager will be particularly happy at having four goals scored by half-time in this match. Mo Salah deservedly wins plaudits worldwide, but it can occasionally feel as though Liverpool’s strikers are having to keep up their goalscoring exploits to cover a defence which is capable having an off-day. Chelsea found that all the talk of their £97.5m striker was ultimately buried by a wonderful goal scored by a defender who almost never scores for them. Ultimately, if Chelsea and Liverpool have had issues this season, these have been lapses in discipline. Chelsea have now had a run of five draws from six games, while Liverpool’s defensive discipline occasionally goes for a walkabout at important moments. That slight inability to completely lock into that robotic winning habit in the way that Manchester City do is what makes the Premier League title almost certain to end up at The Etihad Stadium once again come the end of the season.
16. At a level of the game at which any dropped points are spoken of as some sort of catastrophe, it’s difficult to believe that either Thomas Tuchel or Jurgen Klopp will be particularly happy with this result, pushing open the gap between their two clubs and Manchester City in the Premier League table. Jurgen Klopp will probably be reasonably satisfied for his team to have come away from Stamford Bridge with a point, considering his own absence and that of a number of different players, but if there was a winner from this match who was actually at Stamford Bridge, it was probably Thomas Tuchel.
We may never know what was going through the head of Romelu Lukaku when he gave that interview to Sky Italia, but Tuchel wasn’t the only person taking a gamble in not selecting him for this fixture. Lukaku was taking a gamble in saying what he said, and it’s difficult to say what his intended end to it might be. But Chelsea’s players, who have mis-fired in recent weeks, responded with a performance for the manager this afternoon, and if Lukaku was shaping up for some sort of power struggle with Tuchel, then his position is considerably weakened. He was all but forgotten about by half-time, and completely by the end.