* Liverpool won the last encounter between these two sides, but it’s fair to say that Chelsea were not quite Chelsea yet. As the always-excellent Michael Cox detailed, it was in the following league game that Antonio Conte first dabbled with the 3-4-3.
You know how impressive their results have been since that tactical revelation: 15 wins in 16 league games, scoring 37 goals and conceding just six along the way – as many as they’d shipped in their five league games up to and including the reverse fixture at Stamford Bridge.
Even had one or both of Arsenal and Spurs won their games, a draw worked just fine for Conte. Liverpool famously have the best record in the imaginary intra-top-six league, so a point at Anfield is very much one gained rather than two lost.
* In the meantime, Jurgen Klopp’s side had endured a terrible 2017, winning just one of their eight games – and that was against League Two Plymouth. It’s easy to point to Sadio Mane’s absence as the cause, but come on: they’d failed to beat Sunderland, Plymouth, Southampton (twice), Swansea and Wolves, with only a draw at Old Trafford to provide comfort. With or without a key player, that’s a dismal record for a side that were spoken of as title challengers just weeks prior.
Exactly a month ago, after Liverpool’s New Year’s Eve victory over Manchester City, I wrote that Liverpool had to keep winning against the big teams if they were to keep Chelsea on their toes. That obviously counted double in this game.
* Chelsea’s approach to achieving that was clear from the first few minutes: the priority was not on winning the ball, but on holding their shape and limiting Liverpool’s attacking options. They did it to a tee: Liverpool had 71.8% possession in the first quarter of the game, but produced just one shot, an easily-stopped effort from Georginio Wijnaldum from the edge of the box. Except when Liverpool got into a crossing position in the final third, Chelsea had 10 men behind the ball at all times. All they needed to do was wait for a mistake; with this Liverpool defence, one would surely come.
* And indeed it did. With Mignolet still inexplicably trying to organise his wall and Willian acting as a decoy, David Luiz sprinted up to the ball and thumped it over Jordan Henderson’s head and in off the near post.
For all Mignolet was lacking in concentration, let’s give credit where it’s due. Slipping one past Glenn Hoddle doesn’t exactly make you Danny Ocean, but the fact that none of BT Sport’s three commentators could say whether the referee had even blown the whistle showed how effectively Luiz had caught everyone off guard. It was a clever move worked to perfection, and a quite wonderful strike.
* Let’s keep giving that credit. Luiz was obviously not Conte’s first-choice defensive signing, and when he rejoined from PSG it felt very much like that friend you have who went back to their old live-in boyfriend even though he never washed up, cleaned up or brushed up; the boy did nothing. He must have been good in bed or something.
Now, we can see that not only does Luiz now wash up, clean up and brush up, but with his new defensive discipline, he has installed a beautiful new kitchen worktop, tarmacked the drive and reshingled the roof – and that free-kick shows he’s not forgotten all his sexiest moves either. Yes, I’m impressed.
* Luiz could and should have wooed me a second time shortly after, but was just short of meeting Willian’s inswinging cross from wide on the left. In fairness, twice in four minutes is just too soon for even the liveliest gent.
The way Liverpool defended that cross brought nothing to mind as much as Dejan Lovren’s opener in the reverse fixture, when Chelsea allowed a clutch of Liverpool players to run free in the box from a set-piece.
Had that chance gone in, there would surely have been no way back for Liverpool. For a team low on confidence, falling 2-0 down midway through the first half against a team with as much tactical discipline as Chelsea is a desperate situation. But they survived and neither side offered anything else before the break, meaning Chelsea went in ahead but still vulnerable.
* Four minutes after the interval, Roberto Firmino wasted Liverpool’s first real chance since Wijnaldum’s early effort. A neat flick from Adam Lallana was deflected into the Brazilian’s path by a Chelsea defender, and despite having at least three yards on the nearest defender, he opted to take the shot first time and blazed over the bar.
I’ve noticed this from Firmino. He has largely been excellent since joining Liverpool, but now and then he is prone to the kind of 4-out-of-10, shinning-every-ball performance of an out-of-sorts Wayne Rooney. In fairness, he must be bloody knackered: Jermain Defoe, Troy Deeney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Alexis Sanchez were the only forwards to have played more Premier League minutes than Firmino before Tuesday night’s games, and none of them offer the level of consistent defensive effort he produces.
* In any case, Chelsea failed to learn from Firmino’s let-off and on 57 minutes, Liverpool scored through Wijnaldum’s header.
The real star of the goal was Jordan Henderson, who spotted that James Milner had peeled away from Victor Moses, shaped to shoot, and played a marvellous ball for the left-back (which still feels a bit weird to write). Moses could only get a flick onto Milner’s cross, and Wijnaldum caught out a scrambling Courtois with a powerful header to match the one that beat Manchester City. Chelsea had deserved their lead, but in a game of so few chances for both sides, it was difficult to say Liverpool hadn’t earned it.
Remember what I was saying before about Luiz being sexy? Match that Henderson pass against his goal at Stamford Bridge in September and he’s practically Harrison Ford.
* You know how Google allows you to track how often certain words have been used on certain days? The words ‘atone’ and ‘redeem’ surely spiked enormously after Mignolet’s penalty save.
The pundits questioned the decision to penalise Lallana for the free-kick that led to Luiz’s opener (though personally I thought the decision was sound), but there was no doubt about Joel Matip’s foul on Diego Costa. Unfortunately for everyone’s favourite bastard, Mignolet saved his resulting spot-kick.
Now look. I understand the temptation to say that Mignolet had made up for his earlier free-kick faff with the penalty save, but at risk of being an unromantic pedantic old sod, I’m not having it. You can atone for dropping the all by grabbing it on the bounce, but two unrelated set-pieces 51 minutes apart are just that: unrelated. A wrong and a right don’t add up to a right or even a neutral when your only job is to stop the ball from going in the goal. Why is it that if a player drops a bollock and then saves a penalty he’s a hero, but if he saves a penalty in an otherwise-quiet game we barely speak about it? We love a story, I guess.
* That’s the problem with Mignolet. He is an undisputedly talented shot-stopper, which is what got him the Liverpool gig in the first place, but goodness me he is capable of some tremendous mental lapses.
We talk about clubs having a heritage and a philosophy, and after watching Bruce Grobelaar, David James, a young(ish) Brad Friedel, Sander Westerveld, Jerzy Dudek and now both Loris Karius and Mignolet in goal for Liverpool, I can only conclude that having a great shot-stopper who makes regular howlers from set-pieces is an intentional policy on Liverpool’s part, and that Brendan Rodgers forced Pepe Reina out of the club for being the exact opposite of that.
* Having created so few opportunities in the first 90 minutes, the two sides contrived to waste a chance each before the final whistle.
Substitute Pedro – on for Eden Hazard, who I genuinely didn’t mention in my match notes once other than to note that I hadn’t mentioned him in my notes once, thus creating both a logical paradox and this clumsy, overwrought sentence – had the first of those chances, side-footing the ball wide of the post when a firm toe-poke to the bottom corner would have won the game for Chelsea. Sometimes even the most decorated players have to be that five-a-side toe-poke hero.
Liverpool had a chance of their own within the minute, with Firmino putting a difficult header straight at Courtois to cap a frustrating display.
* Neither of those chances would have meant anything had Henderson not made a perfectly-timed last-ditch tackle to stop Pedro from getting a clear shot on goal in the 88th minute, though. The skipper looked absolutely knackered as he stood up from making the challenge, and understandably so.
Meanwhile, N’Golo Kante continued to show why he on course for a second consecutive Premier League winner’s medal. The best defensive midfielder in the country was at it again, making an astonishing 14 tackles. No wonder Liverpool were stifled.
N'Golo Kante made 14 tackles against Liverpool. Previous high by anyone this season was 10. Leicester miss him. I guess everyone misses him.
— Adam Bate (@ghostgoal) January 31, 2017
Luiz, Wijnaldum and Mignolet will take the headlines, but I suspect the managers will be looking at their defensive midfielders and beaming. I would say “not all night, like”, but if any managers stand at their players’ bedsides gazing admiringly and stroking their hair, it’s Klopp and Conte.
* It’s probably passé to talk about Daniel Sturridge, but I’m nothing if not reliable. Just as against Manchester City, the striker was an unused substitute versus a former club despite a dearth of chances and Firmino’s poor game on the ball.
Sturridge has only played 90 minutes three times since Iceland knocked England out of Euro 2016, and all of them have been in the EFL Cup. Despite their terrible January and the absence of both Mane and Philippe Coutinho, Klopp had only elected to call on Sturridge from the bench against Plymouth, Swansea and Wolves; there was no appearance against Manchester United either. His only league start was against Sunderland, two days after the victory over Manchester City.
I understand that Sturridge does not fit into Klopp’s preferred system, which deploys a false nine, demands supreme fitness and calls on players to switch positions often, none of which are Sturridge’s strengths. But even through the worst spell of Klopp’s reign, Sturridge has gone largely unused. If he wasn’t pushing for a move in the January window, he surely will in the summer. But where does he go? The only top sides where he might be a fit – Everton and Manchester United – are out of the question. I think I hear China calling.
* It’s easy and fun to be wise after the fact, as I’m sure I have ably demonstrated, but going out of the FA Cup in embarrassing circumstances with a much-changed side invited unnecessary pressure onto Klopp. A loss would have made people question whether it was the right decision to rest key players against Wolves, but that shows a singular failure to understand the unilateral direction of time and thus information. The fact that Liverpool didn’t win here still doesn’t mean rotating the squad was the wrong call.
The only surprise about sides playing kids in the cup ahead of big midweek Premier League games is that anyone is still surprised by it. Not to play “if my auntie had bollocks”, but with the two Manchester sides breathing down Klopp’s neck and the north London sides suddenly ahead of them, you can’t blame the German for prioritising a home game against the league leaders given that it may very well make the difference between Europa League and Champions League.
We may bemoan that it shouldn’t be that way and every trophy should be fought for, but the reality is that the money and prestige of Champions League football has such enormous implications for player acquisition and retention that you can’t just ignore it; the medium-term consequences are too great.
With that in mind and a top-four finish still achievable, it would be ludicrously premature to declare Liverpool’s season over, but few would argue that their nightmare January has turned an exhilarating campaign has turned into a worrisome slog despite Spurs and Arsenal also dropping points. For Liverpool, the gap to first is now the same as the gap to seventh.
* The good news for Liverpool is that worst of the storm is now over. Having just played 11 games in 35 days, they will not complete their next 11 until at least 22nd April. It’s an obvious but worthwhile point that Klopp’s style is exhausting, and a return to the weekly schedule could be the difference between them Arsenal, Spurs, City and United, all of whom have both European and FA Cup commitments and the last of whom will also contest the EFL Cup final. There is still a chance that the thrilling Liverpool of August to December will reappear.
* When Spurs, City, United and Liverpool all dropped points 10 days ago, you could practically see the Italian’s beaming grin emanating out of Kante’s bedroom window even before Chelsea beat Hull the following day. He will be similarly toothy after learning that Arsenal and Spurs gained just a point between them.
Chelsea are now nine points ahead of their nearest contenders, despite having lost to all three of the rest of the top four. They have played both Liverpool and Tottenham twice, and their remaining games against Arsenal and City are both at home. The only top-half sides they still need to play away from home are Manchester United, Everton, West Brom and Burnl…hang on. Burnley? Ninth you say? Are you sure? OK…Burnley. Anyway, the highest of those four sides is currently sixth.
It would already take both a Keegan-esque collapse and a Fergie-style charge from behind for Chelsea to lose the title now. Beat Arsenal at Saturday lunchtime, and they can put down their deposit on the open-top bus. I mean, they could anyway, I’m sure. It’ll only be a couple of thousand quid and it’s probably refundable with enough notice.
Look, the point is, it’s going to take something bloody special to stop Chelsea now and I don’t see it happening. Do you?