Liverpool eventually lost their League Cup semi final – 2-1 on aggregate will feel like a wrench, but manager Brendan Rodgers will not be disappointed in the performance his side served up on Tuesday night.
After the debacle that was the first half of the season, it is hugely encouraging that Liverpool have their verve and gusto back, and Rodgers’ side were very unlucky to lose.
Nearing its conclusion, it proved to be sheer tactical experience that gained Jose Mourinho’s Blues access to a Wembley final.
This was always going to be a heated affair, and the match was hallmarked by various aggressions that served as key moments.
Naturally, Diego Costa was at the heart of this, and that is what the Chelsea man is best at—the former Atletico Madrid striker possesses the same hunger that Luis Suarez harnessed at Anfield.
A stamp on Emre Can, another on Martin Skrtel and a heated tussle with Steven Gerrard should have all been totted up by referee Michael Oliver, at the very least, and culminated in swift justice in the form of a red card.
Costa played 120 minutes, and received one yellow card, on 101 minutes.
The Reds were no angels themselves, though, and Lazar Markovic could have seen red for a petulant swipe at Chelsea left-back Felipe Luis after some strong words from the Brazilian — this is an area of Markovic’s game that needs to be stamped out.
But it wasn’t all handbags and delayed bookings, both sides faced pivotal injuries during normal time, and the way in which Rodgers and Mourinho reacted respectively had a significant effect on the game.
Firstly, Chelsea’s chief playmaker, Cesc Fabregas, was forced from the pitch with an injury on 50 minutes — how would Mourinho counter the loss of his most creative player?
Perhaps with the landscape of a semi-final in mind, on came Ramires, and the leggy No. 7 surprisingly added an extra dimension to Chelsea’s attacking game.
This was aided by the loss of Liverpool’s Mamadou Sakho seven minutes later, with Rodgers opting to overlook natural centre-back Dejan Lovren in favour of natural right-back Glen Johnson for the left centre-back role.
This left-hand side proved a weak spot for the Reds, with Ramires joining the previously threatening Willian to overload Johnson.
The loss of Sakho ultimately proved more damaging than the loss of Fabregas.
(Note: Key moments cannot be discussed without mentioning the many goalkeeping interventions of the equally exceptional Thibaut Courtois and Simon Mignolet—their saves helped sway momentum and set the pace for this frenetic encounter, as the compatriots played out an impressive battle of wits.)
The clash of Willian and Sakho was one of many key battles in this tie, with individual tussles shaping the game.
Much was made prior to the game of Kurt Zouma, the 20-year-old Chelsea centre-back, starting over regular first-choice Gary Cahill, with Mourinho attributing this choice to Zouma’s pace, naturally with Raheem Sterling in mind.
Sterling twisted and turned with consistency but, largely, Zouma’s physique gave him the edge—the Liverpool forward’s energy was nullified.
Moreno’s intelligent runs were largely neglected in the first leg, but in this return fixture it seemed that Philippe Coutinho—in masterful form—had tuned himself to the Spaniard’s frequency; most of the Reds’ most dangerous attacks came down that left flank.
Moreno outmuscling Ivanovic on the run on 34 minutes highlighted the Liverpool man’s power in this duel.
Off the pitch in the last leg, Costa’s main aggressor turned out to be vice-captain Jordan Henderson; on the pitch, it was always going to be Skrtel.
Both seem to enjoy this physical bout more than the game itself—tighten the four corners and introduce the Marquess of Queensberry rules, this was more of a bullish tete-a-tete than a battle of footballing intellect.
Luckily, Skrtel was monolithic on Tuesday night, keeping Costa invariably quiet, and it was largely due to his defensive contribution that the Reds made it to extra time.
Rodgers’ Extra-Time Tactics
This was Rodgers’ first semi-final when challenging for major silverware and, unfortunately, despite Liverpool’s endeavour in normal time, it showed as he altered his side for an extra-time charge at the Chelsea goal.
On came Rickie Lambert, in place of Moreno, and Rodgers introduced a bizarrely organised formation.
Liverpool now playing 3-1-3-3, I think, with Gerrard deep.
— Kristian Walsh (@Kristian_Walsh) January 27, 2015
The back three of Can, Skrtel and Johnson remained, but Gerrard reverted to the deep-lying regista role, with Lucas on the right flank, Coutinho central and Henderson switching to the left side.
A front three of Balotelli, Sterling and Lambert rounded off this intriguing line-up.
Unfortunately, these determined roles were completely off.
Lucas struggled with the attacking demands of a right-sided role, and as a result Eden Hazard was allowed to probe Can with persistence.
Gerrard, naturally, could not fully exert himself in this deep-lying role, and was effectively void beyond this point.
The front three, however, remains the biggest blot on Rodgers’ copybook for Tuesday night—the positioning of Balotelli, Sterling and Lambert was wholly misguided.
Balotelli operated as a left-sided attacker, with Lambert on the opposite flank, and Sterling as centre-forward.
As a result, Liverpool were disjointed and uninspired — even by the indescribably brilliant Coutinho — with Lambert sending lofted balls into areas he should have been, and Balotelli drifting off in the liminal spaces Sterling should have adopted.
Liverpool played extra time out in the colourless fashion they had played the first half of the season.
Rodgers can’t be entirely faulted for his enforced personnel changes, as the loss of Sakho turned the game.
Instead, as the manager will likely identify, it is more salient to recognise that Liverpool were outmanoeuvred by a well-oiled and experienced Chelsea side, well-versed in cup victories and extra-time duels.
How should Liverpool have lined up for extra time? Let us know in the comments below.