Liverpool again found out that life at the top of the table can be harsh as they fell to a second successive 2-1 defeat at the home of one of the Premier League’s elite on Sunday.
Brendan Rodgers saw his squad stretched almost to breaking point as the absences of the likes of Steven Gerrard and Daniel Sturridge caught up with him, with the power and quality available to Jose Mourinho and Chelsea perhaps encapsulated when the injured Branislav Ivanovic was replaced by Ashley Cole, capped 106 times by England, in the first half.
That move saw Cesar Azpilicueta switch from left to right-back and ultimately proved key in the performance of the game’s most influential player.
Chelsea’s response to going a goal down to Martin Skrtel’s early strike was hugely impressive and centred on the performance of a player who had been criticised for not performing in the big matches previously.
Eden Hazard started on the left of Chelsea’s trio playing behind Samuel Eto’o and, from there, he was able to drift in and fire home the equaliser which so flattened the Reds just as they were seeking to gain a foothold in the game.
In what was an unusually quiet performance from Oscar, the interchange between Hazard and Willian―the Brazilian who perhaps had his most effective game in a Chelsea shirt here―proved to be crucial, with the summer arrival from Anzhi Makhachkala getting through a lot of the leg work as Hazard shone going forward.
The injury issues in Liverpool’s squad meant that captain Daniel Agger was pressed into service at left-back―a decision Rodgers made despite specialist Aly Cissokho doing nothing wrong at City―and with Mourinho sensing that this would be an opportunity for his team to exploit, Hazard frequently switched to his team’s right flank and looked to cut inside.
This also played to the advantage of Azpilicueta, a more natural right-back who has been pressed into service on the left recently as Mourinho has preferred him to Cole.
Arguably the Spaniard is a more effective attacker than Ivanovic, from open play at least, and he was able to exploit the unnatural position of Agger and the reconstituted nature of the Liverpool defence as he got forward to assist Eto’o for what proved to be the winner, via the hand of an undoubtedly disappointed Simon Mignolet.
This switch, with Willian going to the left, also had the advantage of disrupting Liverpool’s attacks down their more preferred right side, with Glen Johnson unable to get forward as much as he’d like and Raheem Sterling not proving as effective as he’s been in recent weeks.
Coupled with this, Mourinho’s deployment of David Luiz in the centre of midfield, alongside Frank Lampard in the first half and then John Obi Mikel in the second, also help counteract the vibrancy of Liverpool’s front four players who had been so impressive at City.
Luis Suarez, Philippe Coutinho, Jordan Henderson and Sterling couldn’t seem to get going at all, with the Uruguayan uncharacteristically quiet until a couple of late penalty appeals, one of which should certainly have been given.
The more all-action approach of Luiz was crucial in stopping Liverpool’s flow and ensuring that the Reds became frustrated, with Rodgers forced to look to his uninspiring bench in a bid to gain some answers.
Youngster Brad Smith came on for his debut and Iago Aspas turned in the latest of his anonymous substitute appearances, with neither looking likely to punish Mourinho’s side as the clock ticked down.
If this was to be viewed as a tactical battle, then you’d have to say that the Portuguese won it against his former protege Rodgers, but that can largely be put down to the amount of resources that the Chelsea boss has at his disposal.
The likes of Juan Mata, Andre Schurrle and Michael Essien didn’t even get off the bench for the hosts here, whilst Fernando Torres―the £50million man―was afforded just three minutes against his old club by his manager.
Now looking up at four teams in the Premier League and not down on all of them, how Rodgers must envy such power.