Liverpool tasted defeat for the third time in the Premier League this season following a 2-0 reversal against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Sunday afternoon. The result leaves the Reds 6 points adrift of the league leaders and in desperate need of an upturn in fortunes, with the season just 8 games old.
Liverpool entered one of the their toughest assignments of the season on the back of a poor showing in the 2-0 midweek Champions League defeat to Fiorentina. Rafa Benitez demanded a much improved game with Albert Riera coming in for Yossi Benayoun on the left, Javier Mascherano returned to the centre of midfield with Steven Gerrard behind Fernando Torres in attack. However, the eventual outcome was again less than encouraging for Liverpool fans.
Liverpool and Chelsea have, of course, become all too familiar foes in recent years and this was amazingly the 30th time that the two clubs had met since the 2001/02 season. Liverpool’s record in games at Stamford Bridge has been less than impressive during this time. Although last season’s 1-0 League triumph and the 4 goals scored in the recent Champions League quarter-final had meant that expectations amongst the Reds faithful had risen.
This was Liverpool’s first meeting with the West Londoners since the arrival of former AC Milan coach Carlo Ancelloti but some of the same old problems persisted for Rafa’s men as have been evident in many previous visits to Stamford Bridge. Liverpool entered the game knowing that avoiding defeat could well to vital to their league title ambitions and also spurred on by the prospect of closing the gap at the top, with Manchester United only drawing at home to Sunderland of Saturday evening. But, in truth, the Reds never truly looked capable of winning this one.
Both sides were relatively well matched prior to Nicolas Anelka’s decisive 60th minute opener. Neither side had afforded many openings, in a tight encounter, prior to that goal, but it was the home side who always looked the more dangerous and capable of inflicting the decisive blow.
The crucial difference between the two teams seemed to lie in midfield. Whilst much has been made of the Reds defensive failings this season – and 2 more here does make it 12 goals in 8 games – it seems to ultimately be in the centre of the pitch were they are lacking something. Whist Chelsea have players such Michael Ballack and Michael Essien in their midfield engine room, who are not only solid and reliable but also capable of driving the team forward, supporting the attackers and making things happen, Liverpool seem to lack such a quality. Lucas and Mascherano are both good at doing what they do best – keeping things simple and breaking up opposition attacks – but neither really possesses the instinct or ability to create for and support the likes of Gerrard and Torres.
Both Lucas and Mascherano generally performed their duties effectively against Chelsea, with the Argentine partial at fault for losing possession prior to the first goal, but neither were able to provide the necessary assistance and supply line for Torres and Gerrard through the centre of the field. Ultimately this left the front pairing isolated and likes of John Terry, Ricardo Carvalho and Essien were too easily able to smoother out any creativity. With Riera again ineffective and Dirk Kuyt also struggling for space and support, the Reds were rarely able to threaten Hilario’s goal.
The most glaring omission from last seasons improved fortunes at Stamford Bridge was of course Xabi Alonso.
It often seems to easy state the significance of Alonso’s departure but in a game such as this that sort of player may well have proved the difference. Alberto Aquilani may well be finally available for the trip to Sunderland after the international break and time will tell if he is capable of plugging the evident gap in the Reds midfield. Hopefully that will be the case because, although the current midfield may be adequate against some of the lesser sides in the division, improving the balance of the side is paramount with some big games on the horizon.
There was relatively little to chose between the two sides in a tight first half. Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel were largely effective in containing the movement and power of Anelka and Didier Drogba. Whilst at the other end Torres and Co. were well marshalled by Terry and Carvalho. Pepe Reina was largely untroubled, with a Drogba header comfortably collected, whilst Ballack should have done better with a near post header from a set piece.
Torres failed to fully test Hilario with a header from Kuyt’s cross from Liverpool’s first opportunity of note. Shortly after Riera perhaps went closest to breaking the deadlock late in the half. His 30-yard freekick appeared to be seen late by Hilario, but with the ball heading for the bottom corner the Portuguese stopper managed to turn it around the post. But a stalemate at half-time was probably a fair reflection of the opening period.
However, Chelsea were able to exert their authority on the match as the second half commenced.
Mascherano and co, having effectively contained Chelsea’s potent midfield in the first half, were second best for much of the second half. And when Mascherano lost the ball to Frank Lampard in the centre circle, a well-worked, killer move between Lampard, Deco and Drogba opened up the Liverpool defence and resulted in Anelka’s opening goal from Drogba’s cross on the hour.
The Reds seemed particularly vulnerable down the flanks, with Drogba in particular able to get in behind the away backline. And it was Glen Johnson, whose defensive pedigree had been called into question by some, who was caught out of position for the first goal. Skrtel was dragged out wide and, whilst Carragher may have dealt with the cross, the ball in from Drogba was excellent.
After taking the lead Chelsea were able to dominate and Liverpool had few opportunities to salvage a result. Benayoun was introduced by Benitez on 67 minutes at the expense of Riera. Whilst rumours that the Israeli had picked up a slight knock in the midweek match in Florence may explain why he was not selected from the start, the far greater creative threat which he possessed during his cameo when compared with that of Riera illustrated just why he needs to be starting every game.
Torres stabbed disappointingly wide as Liverpool searched for an equaliser. Benayoun somehow eluded to miss a golden chance having found space in the penalty area and a fierce Gerrard drive was well saved by Hilario, but by that time Chelsea had already manufactured a second goal and the game was up.
On 90 minutes, with the Reds defence looking tired, the powerful Drogba was able to get in behind the visiting defence, out-muscle Carragher and pass for a simple Florent Malouda finish. Drogba was certainly a constant menace for Rafa’s men in his partnership with the also impressive, former Liverpool man, Anelka, but his all-to-common antics of play acting are simply shameful and embarrassing from such a big and physically strong player.
So Rafa Benitez and his team have much to digest before they return to action in the north-east in two weeks time. Going in to this match I was sure that Liverpool needed to avoid defeat, having already experienced two losses this season. But defeat was precisely the outcome, with Chelsea’s win probably justified. Although it is still far too early to write of Liverpool’s chances, as both Benitez and Ancelotti reiterated post match, this is a big setback for the Reds. This performance against one of their proclaimed fellow title contenders was far too reminiscent of those from a couple of years ago, when Liverpool always seemed to lack an edge over their rivals. Liverpool will surely improve as the season progresses, but improve they now must.