Liverpool dropped points from a winning position again as they slumped to a 2-2 draw with title rivals Chelsea, with a shift to cup duties perhaps a welcome one.
Chelsea 2-2 Liverpool
Premier League (20), Stamford Bridge
January 2, 2022
Goals: Kovacic 42′, Pulisic 45+2′; Mane 9′, Salah 26′
Goodbye with a goal
This was to be Liverpool’s final game before Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane depart for the Africa Cup of Nations, and they both signed off with a goal.
One was a relief, as Mane ended a nine-game drought, while another was a moment of pure quality from a player Chelsea allowed to slip through their grasp.
Salah was far, far more effective than Mane throughout, with the No. 10 still working his way out of a crisis of confidence, but their combined absence for at least the next four games is a concern for the Reds.
Diogo Jota, in blistering form of late, toiled up front, while Roberto Firmino missed out after testing positive for COVID-19 and both Divock Origi and Takumi Minamino remain injured.
Liverpool ended the game with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain up front and Curtis Jones out wide, which could be a sign of things to come.
Kelleher the stand-in
Like Firmino and Joel Matip, Alisson was ruled out of the game due to COVID-19, and will remain in isolation until Thursday at the earliest.
In came Caoimhin Kelleher, then, for his second Premier League start of the season and arguably his biggest test since rising up to the role of No. 2 for Liverpool.
Though he conceded twice, the Irishman gave a good account of himself, with both goalkeepers producing a series of excellent saves.
He seemed unfazed by the intensity of the fixture – and the scrutiny of a baying Stamford Bridge crowd – which should bode well if he is to challenge Alisson in the future.
Despite stepping up from the academy with no previous experience of senior football, in Kelleher, the Reds seem to have their best second-choice goalkeeper in a long time.
A big midfield call…
Jurgen Klopp put together the side in the days leading into the game, but was forced to watch on from home as he too tested positive for COVID-19.
Given the enforced absences, there were few surprises when the teamsheet was released at 3.30pm – bar the inclusion of James Milner in midfield.
Milner will turn 36 on Tuesday, but was preferred to both Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita, as Liverpool’s coaching staff opted for hardened experience in a high-stakes tussle – perhaps, in part, to cater for the absence of Klopp.
It seemed a strange call, but looked to have paid off as Milner’s bustling energy dominated the midfield in the early stages, until he visibly tired and Chelsea gained a foothold in the engine room.
Far from it was Milner the sole contributor, either, with Fabinho and Jordan Henderson both struggling in a unit that gave Chelsea far too much time and space.
With Thiago picking up another injury, Keita off to the AFCON, Harvey Elliott not yet back and both Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jones seemingly required in attack, this trio could be seen more often over the next month.
Like Milner, Henderson is now over 30, while Fabinho cannot be relied upon to hold things together on his own, making midfield a clear priority in the summer.
The imminent return of Elliott to team training will be much-welcomed, but there is work to be done in the middle of the park.
Klopp’s assistant, Pepijn Lijnders has made no secret of his desire to return to management in the future, with his plan to do so upon the expiry of his contract in 2024.
For many, he could be the ideal successor to Klopp in the Liverpool job.
That is largely based on his reputation among players and coaches and the enthusiasm and intelligence with which he talks about football, but ultimately that decision will rest on Fenway Sports Group.
What an audition, though, as he stood in for the waylaid Klopp – and though it ended in a disappointing collapse from 2-0 up, Lijnders looked the part on the touchline.
He spoke well before the game, saying “we don’t come here with excuses, we come here to attack the game,” and he was a constant vocal presence over the 90 minutes.
A welcome change of focus?
At a time in which Man City are surging ahead and Chelsea are enduring a miserable run, it is frustrating that Liverpool have now taken just two points from their last three Premier League games.
City are now 10 points clear of Chelsea at the top, and 11 points ahead of the Reds who have a game in hand, with Pep Guardiola’s side showing a metronomic will to win.
The mood has dipped among supporters, and it is perhaps fortuitous that the next week-and-a-half brings a change of focus.
First, the first leg of a League Cup semi-final against Arsenal, which Klopp will miss, before the visit of League One outfit Shrewsbury in the third round of the FA Cup, and then onto that second leg.
Changes can be made, with youth almost certainly relied upon in the FA Cup, and for fans it could be a chance to refresh, forget about a troubling run in the league and enjoy the game again.