A year on from dealing a fatal blow to their title dream, Chelsea helped effectively end Liverpool’s hopes of claiming a place in the Champions League. It was in the 36th game of the last Premier League season that Chelsea’s 2-0 win left Liverpool needing an unlikely twist to claim a first championship in 24 years. Now, again, with two matches remaining, a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge means Liverpool requiring a mathematical miracle to overhaul Manchester United for the fourth spot.
There was some redemption for Steven Gerrard in his final match against a club with which his Liverpool career has often been so memorably intertwined. Reminded about his infamous slip throughout by the home supporters, the outgoing Liverpool captain headed into the net before halftime to cancel out a headed effort from his counterpart, John Terry. But Liverpool couldn’t find the winner they really needed to stand a chance of earning a return to the Champions League. With two games left to play, the gap to Manchester United is six points, while Liverpool also have a sizably inferior goal difference of 14. Realistically the final place in Europe’s premier competition is heading to Old Trafford.
A galling realization of just how far Liverpool have slipped since the fixture at Anfield last season came when Brendan Rodgers’ men were compelled to form a guard of honor for the freshly crowned champions in blue. Last season against the same opponents Chelsea also had little to play for, only for Jose Mourinho to go all out to pay spoiler to Liverpool’s aspirations. This time, in a break from the remarkably consistent team selections he has deployed this season, Mourinho made five changes to his first XI. A sign of Mourinho’s more relaxed approach was the decision to hand a first ever senior start to 19-year-old midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
Chelsea were as usual disciplined and competitive, although clearly not at their most intense for much of the contest. Liverpool had plenty of the play after a sloppy start, helped by a half-time system shift, but the continued absence of Daniel Sturridge up front, ruled out ahead of this game until September, was all too apparent. And there was a sense that by the end Liverpool were resigned to their fate.
Perhaps things would have been different had Cesc Fabregas been deservedly sent off in the opening exchanges. Less than a minute had been played when the Spanish midfielder dived in recklessly on Raheem Sterling and was left incredibly fortunate to earn just a yellow card. Having escaped on that occasion, Fabregas then again avoided being given his marching orders when tugging Sterling less than 20 minutes later.
But by that point Fabregas had played his part in putting Chelsea in front. It was in the fifth minute that Fabregas’ corner saw Terry easily out-jump Rickie Lambert and head down past both Simon Mignolet and the covering Gerrard on the line.
Lambert’s woes extended to failing to make any impact leading the attack. The absence of Nemanja Matic in Chelsea’s midfield meant there was more space than usual to operate in front of their backline. But Liverpool lacked the cutting edge to take advantage. When they did get back on level terms it was via a set-piece. Just a minute before the interval, Gerrard’s movement shook off the attentions of Gary Cahill -- on for the injured Kurt Zouma -- and allowed him to beat Thibaut Courtois just inside the post.
On the back of that boost, Liverpool made a strong start to the second half, with Sterling and Adam Lallana growing in influence. But the end product just wasn’t there. And Liverpool’s lack of options filling the striker position was shown when Lambert was replaced by 18-year-old Jerome Sinclair, making his first Premier League appearance. There were some positives in the overall performance for the visitors but ultimately, despite Chelsea taking their foot off the gas, Liverpool rarely looked like getting the goal they needed to give themselves a realistic hope of claiming that much sought after place in the Champions League.