When the going gets tough, the tough gets going!
Chelsea's nine point lead at the Premier League summit after 23 games is precisely synonymous to that famous saying. The likes of Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City have all been found wanting when put under pressure, while Chelsea have shuttled between beauty and beast to rack up one win after another.
From putting up a champagne performance against Everton, to being ruthlessly efficient in getting the better of Manchester City and Tottenham, in addition to grinding out tight 1-0 wins against the battling West Broms and Sunderlands of the league, the Blues have answered every simple, awkward questions thrown at them.
Chelsea's point at Anfield that extended their lead at the top of the Premier League, once again set Antonio Conte's men apart from their faltering rivals. While their performance on the night didn't soar to the heights that the Blues have been scaling this season, it was their signature resilience that enabled them to get a result that further strengthened their bid for a fifth Premier League crown.
The Blues, however, entered the game as favourites with opponents Liverpool on a three-game losing streak at home, but Jurgen Klopp's side who had their season on the line after exiting the FA Cup and League Cup in the week gone by, started like a team on a mission, giving glimpses of the group that were Chelsea's biggest challengers a month ago. The Blues who were pleased to sit back with their flat back five and hit the hosts on the break had to weather the early storm and kill the Reds' new-found vigour.
A crucial Thibaut Courtois save from Georginio Wijnaldum shot early on in the game, when Chelsea's famed back three of David Luiz, Cesar Azpilicuetta and Gary Cahill endured a rare breach, helped Conte's men safely navigate through the early moments of pressure as the Kop end tried to roar their side into form. But the defiant Londoners once again proved how difficult they were to score against as the Reds were denied a quick start they craved for. As the home side's early zest fizzled out, Luiz dealt the Reds a big blow as he found the net with a brilliant quickly-taken free-kick, catching Simon Mignolet and Liverpool napping.
The goal in the 24th minute put all initial signs of a Liverpool recovery to rest as a laboured, listless-looking Reds side went into half time staring at a fourth consecutive home defeat for the first time since 1923.
With other results going their way, Chelsea were firmly in the driver's seat in terms of the title race and took the foot off their pedal at the start of the second half, thus allowing Liverpool a window to come back into the game. The Blues' weakness against crosses showed up again. A sublime Jordan Henderson pass allowed James Milner to set up Wijnaldum who equalised for Liverpool. The tide had turned and Klopp's men had winds in their sails again.
It was also a time when Chelsea's shortcomings began to show up. A lack of a ball-playing midfielder in the side was evident as the Blues struggled to retain possession against a Liverpool side revitalised by the leveler. Eden Hazard and Diego Costa, who were often the recipients of whatever Chelsea broke forward, were having evenings to forget and afforded the Reds rearguard a much-needed respite after a torrid week.
Liverpool had an astounding 93.3% success rate for their tackles, a statistic that also showcased Chelsea's below par performance going forward. The Blues failed to have shot on target from open play in the entire game despite attempting 8 shots in total.
However, their inability to produce the goods upfront that led to Liverpool launching waves of attacks on the Chelsea goal didn't affect the composure of their rugged defence that kept on thwarting the Reds. Conte's men made 38 clearances as compared to Liverpool's 22, 32 out of which were made by Chelsea's back five. Ahead of them in midfield, N'Golo Kante covered every inch of grass on the pitch, making nine successful tackles in the process, just five less than the entire Liverpool side combined.
This show of endurance, that's become a trademark of Chelsea sides over the years once again stood out on a day when they had little or no outlets in form of counter attacks at a point of time in the second half.
However, post the hour mark, Conte who seemed discontent with his side's attacking contribution, managed to almost inspire another win for the Blues with his changes. The Italian sent in Pedro in place of the off-colour Hazard and the in-form Spaniard straight away gave Chelsea's attack some thrust. Just three minutes later, capitalising on Dejan Lovren's misplaced pass, Costa earned the visitors a penalty and a chance to claim all three points out of nothing. However, his meek effort from six yards was saved by Mignolet who redeemed himself for his first-half error.
One thought it would provide Liverpool with the spring board to have a real go at Chelsea in the closing stages, but the Blues assessed and adapted to the situation really well. Conte threw in Cesc Fabregas in place of Willian in the 83rd minute to have more control over the ball and the Spaniard who is Chelsea's joint assist-provider despite spending most of the season on the bench didn't disappoint.
Chelsea got hold of the ball and slowed the pace of the game with a good spell of possession at the end. Liverpool who were desperate for a win being ten points behind their opponents, couldn't stage a grand stand finish. In fact, the fresh legs of Pedro and the creativity and composure of Fabregas saw Chelsea almost steal the game when Pedro shot inches wide with virtually nothing left on the clock. It was a game where Liverpool bossed Chelsea in most areas but at full time, the way the Blues finished, there was a feeling they could have, or perhaps should have left with full points.
On an evening when Arsenal lost to Watford, and Tottenham drew at Sunderland, Chelsea's point after a rather sluggish show in a pale draw at Anfield proved to be the high point. Their failure to win three points though means the title race will live to see another day but one wonders for how long especially with Chelsea portraying the tenacity and adaptability of their old illustrious self.
Published Date: Feb 01, 2017 03:35 pm | Updated Date: Feb 01, 2017 03:43 pm