Surprisingly, Sunday at Anfield wasn’t all about Luis Suarez and his unfathomable bite on Branislav Ivanovic. There was actually a game of football, and a fine one at that, as Liverpool secured a last-gasp draw at home to Chelsea.
Of course, given that Suarez had already produced a sublime assist, committed a handball leading to a penalty to the visitors and performed said bite, there was a certain air of inevitability that it would be him to score the 96th-minute header on his 96th appearance for Liverpool, on a day where remembrance for the 96 Hillsborough victims was rife.
But besides the spotlight-stealing Suarez, what else was there to learn from an exciting clash?
Here are six things to take away from Liverpool’s 2-2 draw against Chelsea as we start looking beyond the end of the season towards the 2013-14 Premier League campaign.
Enjoy and let us know your thoughts and views in the comments below.
That Luis Suarez had a hand in three of the game’s four goals demands that we talk about him, both for his good and, unfortunately in the immediate wake of the match, more of the bad.
First, the good.
It is a testament to the sheer brilliance that Suarez possesses at his feet that even despite a reputation and penchant for controversy, he was nominated as a Player of the Year candidate. And while he is still not back to his top form yet, we saw two of his most important attributes this season, as his creativity and technique produced a classy lobbed cross for Daniel Sturridge to turn home, and his finishing and positioning earned him—and Liverpool—a headed equalizer at the death.
But then, there is also the bad.
And on Sunday, we saw both extremes at Anfield. There are those who say that the penalty Kevin Friend awarded for Suarez’s handball was payback given his history, first against Ghana in the World Cup 2010 quarterfinals, then earlier this season against Mansfield Town in the FA Cup. Except that, while it could have been red-card offence instead of a yellow, the only underlying similarity is that handball was involved.
Accidental or not, this was a case of reputation coming before the incident.
The bite, however, was an altogether different matter. It is a tragedy (tragicomedy?) that a player of Suarez’s ilk is so incompetent at controlling his emotions on the field, but for someone to repeat a similar offence—having committed the same against PSV Eindhoven’s Otman Bakkal in his last appearance for Ajax—shows the sheer inability of Suarez to learn from such punishments.
Perhaps less emphasized is that any potential sanctions or bans from the English FA is dependent on Mr. Friend’s post-match report, but just as Suarez was beginning to win over his critics with an improved simulation record, it looks as if he might be missing extended match action due to misconduct for his second season in a row.
And that’s not good enough.
There was a lingering thought in the back of many Red minds in the build-up to the match: What kind of reception would Rafael Benitez get on his first return to Liverpool as an opposing manager?
Any doubts were expelled as Benitez received an ovation that Brendan Rodgers would have been proud of, as he was curiously on the end of more cheering from his opposing fans than from his own. Not that this should come as a surprise, though: After all, it was Benitez who brought Liverpool their fifth European Cup, and it was Benitez who took them to their first real title race in 20 years.
But surely even he wouldn’t have expected in-game serenades of the Rafa chant, much like the old days, and he can be pardoned for appearing a little misty and emotional during what was surely a surreal personal experience.
In a game that saw four players coming up against their previous employers, only Fernando Torres failed to earn any sort of acknowledgment from the Anfield crowd, and even then, his non-appearance in a Chelsea shirt rendered his presence effectively useless.
Benitez’s obvious evasion of the Suarez-related questions in the post-match interviews made it clear that he was prepared to still be diplomatic when it comes to Liverpool. That he still has one eye on the Anfield job can now be considered an understatement.
One of the former player brigade on show on Sunday was Daniel Sturridge, who started the game on the substitutes’ bench but was granted a 45-minute second-half introduction in place of the ineffective Philippe Coutinho.
In his first two minutes on the pitch, Sturridge managed to surge through the Chelsea defence to set up a glorious chance for Steven Gerrard, and then to hit the post with a fizzling long-range strike. With such hunger displayed, it was inevitable that Sturridge would score for Liverpool.
His goal was one of exquisite beauty, from Jamie Carragher’s long ball over the top, to Stewart Downing’s layoff for Suarez, to the No. 7’s floated cross, and finally to Sturridge’s excellent positioning and finish.
And that wasn’t the end of his contributions either, as he provided the right-wing cross for Suarez to head in his last-gasp equalizer.
His first goal in two months coincided with a dramatic spike in his form. Sturridge showed all the signs that he has gotten over his injury troubles and bad form in an effervescent display, as he buzzed all over the pitch against his former employers.
If he sustains this form for the rest of the season, he’ll enter the summer—and perhaps start next season—on a high. He’ll need to, especially if Suarez gets hit with a hefty expected ban.
A common theme for Liverpool this season is that they have struggled mightily against a particular physical brand of target-man strikers—see Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke and Oldham Athletic’s Matt Smith as two fine examples.
Set pieces have been a death knell for the Reds all season, and it appears that, four games from the end, there still haven’t been any improvements on this front, be it defending set pieces or attacking them.
Chelsea’s opening goal was a textbook example, and it wasn’t even scored through a Didier Drogba or John Terry-type player. It was the slightly built Oscar who took advantage of slack marking and a badly positioned Lucas on the goal line.
Whether a goal like this would have been prevented under Benitez’s much derided zonal marking system is irrelevant, especially as Rodgers has by and large adopted zonal for his Liverpool team, but what is relevant is that for all the troubles they encounter on the defensive end, they replicate them in the final third.
Many a corner was wasted on Sunday: A Stewart Downing outswinger was drilled way above the heads in the penalty area, while in general, following Sami Hyypia’s departure, there just hasn’t been a credible and regular threat from corners and free kicks.
What ensues is that Liverpool have lost a valuable way of scoring and getting points, and more importantly, that they now have an area where opponents would be mistaken not to target.
On the 80th minute, Jonjo Shelvey was summoned from the Liverpool bench to make his first senior appearance in two months, and not only did he not take a rare chance to impress, but he promptly went on to demonstrate why Rodgers has severely limited his game time of late with a series of bad decisions.
Shelvey was presented with a couple of glorious chances to wrap up the point(s) for the Reds before Suarez had to step up at the end, but he lacked the composure to take any of them. Not that this was a surprise, though: But for a surprisingly prolific Europa League campaign, Shelvey has exhibited poor finishing all season long.
And he has retained that capability to frustrate. Not long after his entrance, he committed yet another rash tackle that has come to define his rawness in his first full season as a real squad member, but alarmingly, his red-card offence against Manchester United at Anfield came earlier in the season with no seeming improvement since then.
Add his leaden movement and poor positioning, and what Liverpool have in Jonjo Shelvey is not only a young player without the requisite composure but also without the necessary technical attributes to succeed at the top level.
He has a long way to go before he even matches the recently underwhelming (again) Jordan Henderson, and by that inference Shelvey might not last past the summer at Anfield.
For Liverpool, after Sunday’s titanic clash against Chelsea, the only thing left to play for this season is a league finish above Merseyside rivals Everton to prevent the Reds from finishing below the Blues for a second season in a row.
But it is not inconceivable that Liverpool could remain in their seventh place from now until the end of the season, which would mean slight progression by way of one league position, albeit with an improved goals scored and conceded record.
So what Brendan Rodgers should do is to make use of the remaining four league games to really put his vision to the test and put his players on their toes.
Since the obstinate passing approach adopted in the early months of the season, Rodgers’ team has noticeably added a variability to their approach play, often switching to more direct passing when in need of an injection of speed, which has pleasingly added more dynamism to the team. However, in recent months Liverpool have perhaps earned their most impressive wins by blitzing goals past opponents with a counterattacking philosophy in mind.
As well, Suarez’ projected absence gives Rodgers more food for thought. The manager has already gone on record stating his displeasure with Suarez’s antics and, by saying that no player is bigger than the club, has hinted that Suarez might be let go if things don’t change (via The Daily Mail).
Given Sturridge’s performance against Chelsea, Rodgers should not hesitate in starting him up front in their next league match away at Newcastle United, with possible preparations for a Liverpool side next season without Luis Suarez.
Perhaps it is a sign—a sobering sign—of Liverpool’s season that the 2013-14 campaign should be starting early at Anfield. But this was only ever supposed to be a transition season, wasn’t it?
The real work starts in August. And Rodgers should start preparing for it now.