When the teamsheets emerged for this game, it appeared that Chelsea were adopting a more defensive mindset than they have taken into many other games this season. While not quite the ‘parking of two buses’ that Brendan Rodgers complained about last time the teams met, it was notable that José Mourinho ignored Willian and André Schürrle, putting Ramires into his team alongside Cesc Fàbregas and Nemanja Matic. The Brazilian was much more defensively inclined positionally than either of the other two would have been, often finding himself the last man back when the Blues were attacking. However, that apparently conservative attitude came at the expense of team cohesion. In the opening stages, Liverpool, and Emre Can in particular, found space far too often between Chelsea’s defence and midfield, and the German had already fired a couple of warning shots before his ninth minute opener. Can had a fine game until tiring a little in the second half, and illustrated what was a rare example of a tactical decision from José Mourinho backfiring on the Portuguese. The Chelsea manager likes consistency in his selections; in sacrificing that today, the resultant uncertainty could have cost his team.
The main talking point before the match was whether Brendan Rodgers would reverse his changes from the Real Madrid Champions League tie in midweek. Sure enough, all but one of the team which faced Newcastle last week returned, with Emre Can the only new face. For Chelsea, meanwhile, seven of their starting 11 continued their record of starting every league match, and Branislav Ivanovic , Gary Cahill, John Terry and Nemanja Matic have played every minute. Diego Costa made the line-up despite – and this has been a common theme this season – not being thought to be fully fit, and came off towards the end after taking a knock. After the Reds had enjoyed an extra day’s post-Champions League rest, this seemed like the perfect opportunity for Liverpool to call on the spirit of last season and go at the Blues’ throats from the start; and to an extent, that is what they did. Can was driving forward and having a shot deflected over within 35 seconds, and he and Liverpool were rewarded with a goal after showing as much forward momentum as we have seen from them in the early stages this season. However, within minutes their defensive organisation had gone to pieces from a corner, and as the game drew on, it became more and more apparent that, for now at least, consistency would trump rest.
Liverpool should, however, take a lot out of this game. Before today, the Reds had scored only twice in their last five. Chelsea, meanwhile, had scored 26 goals in ten league matches, and had rarely looked anything other than in complete control. But for the first half hour at least, Liverpool’s passing was crisper, they were finding more space, they were getting more shots in. All of a sudden, it was 2013/14 all over again, as Liverpool hared out of the blocks and were rewarded with an early goal. But if last year would have seen them build on that, this is now – within five minutes, they were in a mess at a corner, and Chelsea brought things back to the present, taking more and more control as the game wore on. Liverpool came to life again a bit after Chelsea went ahead, with Gerrard starting to push further forward again, but a Henderson effort struck Matic and there was no penalty awarded after a strike from the Liverpool skipper deflected off Cahill’s arm. The Anfield outfit, though, should look at much of this game as the template. Having been absent for much of this season, there were flickering signs once more of the urgency that took them so close last year.
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