Jose Mourinho does it again. Chelsea re-opened the Premier League title race with a 2-0 win over Liverpool on Sunday, thwarting and frustrating the league leaders as the Blues produced an impressive “soak-and-dagger” away display.
If it is not a familiar story by now, it should be: This season Chelsea have gone to Old Trafford, the Emirates, the Etihad and now Anfield and come away without conceding a goal.
They were undoubtedly fortunate to break the deadlock, however, Steven Gerrard slipping at exactly the wrong moment to allow Demba Ba in for the clearest opening of the contest—one he would not turn away.
Then, in the final minutes of added time, Willian tapped in from Fernando Torres’ assist after the home side had committed everybody forward in attack.
The defeat does not destroy Liverpool’s title hopes, but it does dent them—they will be knocked off the top of the table on goal difference if Manchester City win their two games in hand.
Chelsea, meanwhile, are now just two points off Brendan Rodgers’ side with two games remaining and could reach the Champions League final against Atletico Madrid in midweek.
Mourinho told Sky Sports:
My players played an excellent game. It's a great victory and a big performance by everyone.
We deserved to win, no doubt about it. We were always comfortable and never in trouble against a fantastic team with beautiful players.
We are back in nothing. We won both matches against the champion—if it's Liverpool or Manchester City.
Rodgers, meanwhile, told reporters (via the Telegraph): "I can only pay tribute to the players. We were clearly the better side today.
"It ends what has been a brilliant run for us, and now we'll recover. We probed and penetrated, but they had almost a back six."
The whole game was one of mounting frustration for the Anfield crowd, with Mourinho clearly instructing his rotated side to focus more on keeping things tight at the back than showing any great adventure going forward.
The selection of Tomas Kalas—sum total of two substitute appearances in the league all season—was Mourinho’s one truly surprising selection, having previously threatened to rest his entire squad to focus on the looming European encounter, with Frank Lampard, John Obi Mikel and Nemanja Matic comprising an uncompromising three-man midfield.
Liverpool, meanwhile, were as strong as they could be given the injuries and suspensions in the squad—Joe Allen and Lucas Leiva supporting Gerrard in midfield, with Daniel Sturridge still not quite fit enough to start.
Liverpool started the contest brightly, as they have tended to all season, but could not take two decent early chances, as Philippe Coutinho skewed wide from a tight angle and Mamadou Sakho fired straight at Mark Schwarzer from close range after the ball fell perfectly for him in the box.
Chelsea had actually had the first chance of the game—Ashley Cole forcing a sprawling save from Simon Mignolet in the sixth minute—but soon set about playing the spoiler, frustrating the Kop as they took their time over all dead-ball situations.
It was somewhat ironic, then, that the pivotal moment of the half would come in injury time, and that it would benefit the visitors.
There seemed to be little danger when Sakho passed the ball square to Gerrard on the half-way line, but after the Reds skipper let the ball slide under his controlling foot and then slipped as he attempted to make up for the error, Ba suddenly received the ball with a clear run at goal.
The striker had been abject up until that point (and, in truth, was awful after it also), but he was calm and collected when it counted, slipping his shot under Mignolet as Gerrard could only look on in absolute horror.
Perhaps only John Terry, who slipped in similarly important circumstances in the Champions League final six years ago, would have some insight into how Gerrard was feeling at that moment.
The second half started in similar fashion, with Luis Suarez and Allen forcing saves from Schwarzer in quick succession. The introduction of Sturridge lifted the atmosphere around the ground, although perhaps also only underlined the growing fear that something needed to change if they were going to get back on terms in the contest.
Mourinho made a change too, bringing on Willian for Mohamed Salah, and Chelsea continued to threaten on the counter-attack—Andre Schurrle forcing Mignolet into one impressive save after his surging run created space for a shot on the edge of the box.
That certainly seemed to be Chelsea’s approach to the final 20 minutes, with Liverpool camped in the opposition for huge periods, probing for openings. As the anxiety levels rose, so did the frantic nature of the game, although Liverpool struggled to create the sort of clear openings that perhaps required greater patience and composure on the ball.
Gerrard, in particular, seemed determined to make up for his earlier mistake, forcing three saves from Schwarzer with long-range attempts, albeit without ever seriously looking like finding the net.
With 15 minutes remaining Mourinho withdrew Schurrle for Gary Cahill, leaving no-one in any doubt about his defensive intent. Rodgers responded in kind, withdrawing Jon Flanagan for Iago Aspas.
It was a chess match between the two tacticians, but neither move greatly impacted the flow of the contest.
Into injury time, Liverpool received a dangerous opening when referee Martin Atkinson erroneously awarded a corner. Schwarzer half-cleared Gerrard’s delivery straight to Suarez but got himself upright just in time to palm away the Uruguayan’s powerful volley.
It was the final key moment in the match, as Chelsea sealed a smothering three points moments later. Throwing everyone forward, Liverpool exposed themselves massively at the back, and Torres and Willian combined to round Mignolet and tap into the unguarded net.
The bigger picture is that we're still two points ahead of a team who have spent an absolute fortune. For us, we achieved our objective of Champions League football and now we just go into our next game.
I haven't given the table too much thought. Man City have still got the games to play. We'll continue to fight to finish as high as we can.
Manchester City still have plenty of work to do, but the title race is wide open once again.
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Chelsea will look to book their place in the final of the Champions League when they face Atletico Madrid in the second leg of their semi-final at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday.
Liverpool, meanwhile, travel to London to face Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park next weekend.
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