Billed as the paddock for the personal duel between Eden Hazard and Mohamed Salah on the eve of an enticing Premier League contest, the Stamford Bridge instead witnessed a pulsating thriller between two teams with identical ideologies. Chelsea and Liverpool played out a 1-1 draw, just days after Maurizio Sarri’s side knocked out Jurgen Klopp’s team from the Carabao Cup at the Anfield.
In a stark contrast to their midweek meeting, both managers opted for their preferred starting lineups – Olivier Giroud was flanked by Willian and Eden Hazard on either side while Jorginho resumed his duties as Chelsea’s midfield operator alongside N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic. Liverpool welcomed back Mohamed Salah into their attacking setup, as well as Georginio Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson and James Milner into the midfield.
If anybody presumed either team will choose to start in a reserved manner, they wouldn’t be further away from the truth. The signs were clear right from the onset – Liverpool pressed and pressed hard, not only when Chelsea had possession in their opponent's half of play but also when Sarri’s men looked to recoup in their own half. Jurgen Klopp’s cavalcade at Liverpool is in its fourth season and finally resembles a parade – flamboyant, relentless and flourishing.
Liverpool’s midfield dynamism with a lesser heralded trio than that of Chelsea’s Kante, Jorginho and Kovacic is simply the product of Klopp’s unyielding work and the Fenway Sports Group’s faith in the German manager over the last few seasons. To visit a team which is as free-flowing as them and seize control of the game by the scruff of its neck is something which Liverpool didn’t imbibe spontaneously, but instead developed over hours of devotion under Klopp. It seemed quite like a sucker punch though when Chelsea got the first goal of the game.
Chelsea, in recent years, has been as mercurial as they come – triumphant in one season, deplorable in the next. One common theme, however, has been their tendency to struggle against teams which deploy a ‘high press’, invariably losing their shape and becoming vulnerable at the back. There lies a testament to Sarri’s influence in less than three months that Chelsea efficiently countered Liverpool’s press with their own style of play – netting the first goal of the game with some incredible first-touch football.
David Luiz’s pass to Hazard was a simple one, but the Belgian’s instinctive flick to Kovacic took out half of the Liverpool team from contention. While Hazard continued his run forward, Kovacic played a quick one-two with Jorginho and released the ball onto the path of a surging Hazard who slotted it into the far corner beyond an outstretched Alisson. The goal might not have been in the same league as was Hazard’s winner in the League Cup, but this was the Belgian’s sixth Premier League goal of the season and with that, Chelsea’s talisman won his battle against Salah fair and square.
The Egyptian had a quiet night at his former home, failing to connect on certain shots and struggling to execute certain other clever moves – it was only after Salah’s withdrawal did Liverpool started to impose more upon the hosts. In the end, it was another former Blue Daniel Sturridge who restored parity. For a man who has consistently struggled with injuries even during loan spells, Sturridge finally had his redemption at the ground where he had first broken through as a teenager.
Substituted on with just four minutes to normal time, Sturridge received the ball thirty yards from goal and let his shot flow and the ball swerved mid-air to beat a flying Kepa, and Liverpool finally had their equalizer. It was long overdue for a splendid defensive display from Luiz and Antonio Rudiger had protected Kepa’s clean sheet for so long, but even the late goal did not break hearts on either side.
“I am disappointed because they scored in the last minutes but in the end I'm happy, firstly with the performance, and I think a draw maybe is the right result, the match was wonderful. I'm really happy with the defensive performance of my side, especially in the second half,” a candid Sarri told reporters after the game, the Italian’s warm, smiling, post-match embrace with Klopp having quickly become a talking point, especially in a generation of managers where contempt and disdain have become the norm.
Not only was it refreshing to watch for supporters of both clubs, bitter rivals themselves, but it was just another hallmark of modern English Premier League clubs – fast-paced and suave on pitch, cordial off it. Chelsea continue to remain in the third place in the league standings, two points behind both Manchester City and Liverpool both of whom are the primary titular contenders, but the manner in which Sarri has revolutionized Chelsea’s style of play in such a short period speaks volumes about the Italian’s credentials.
Chelsea still need an efficient striker leading the line though – Giroud’s overall play helps free Hazard but Morata’s Jekyll-and-Hyde act isn’t conducive for a legitimate titular challenge. With only seven games played, a call in favour of Manchester City or Liverpool seems pretentious, but work is cut out for Klopp’s men – on evenings when Salah doesn’t hit the bullseye or Firmino doesn’t come up with his piece of magic, they need to find the goals elsewhere.
Their tactical problems at a bare minimum, should Liverpool manage to achieve the necessary consistency, come next summer, the only differentiator between them and Manchester City in deciding the Premiership will be temperament.
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Updated Date: Sep 30, 2018 16:00:16 IST