Steven Gerrard’s slip and Demba Ba’s cool finish saw control of the Premier League title slip through Liverpool’s grasp as an under-strength Chelsea squad played the role of spoilers to perfection at Anfield.
Cruelly, it was the Liverpool captain, seeking the one major medal to thus far elude him in his legendary career, who made the crucial error, allowing Ba to race clear and slot home deep into first-half injury time. Both before and after that it had been almost entirely one-way traffic in the other direction. But Liverpool couldn’t break through a blue wall and their former striker Fernando Torres raced clear in injury time at the end of the match before setting up Willian to seal the three points.
Jose Mourinho followed through on his threat to play a weakened team, although with the side costing more than Liverpool’s it could hardly be called weak. Regardless of the lineup, his tactics surprised no-one and his team followed through on them with a mindset far from one of heading to Anfield in a mood to lie down. Mourinho was determined to prevent Liverpool from establishing the high-tempo attacking play that had fired them to 11 straight victories. That meant having all but Ba behind the ball for much of the encounter and packing the center of the pitch. More nefarious methods were also deployed, with Chelsea’s time-wasting beginning in the opening minutes and continuing throughout.
But the strategy worked a treat as Chelsea rendered their opponents desperately frustrated. Despite their mounting pressure Liverpool were restricted to hopeful efforts and Willian’s late goal ensured a result that had long since seemed inevitable. Chelsea inflict Liverpool’s first Premier League defeat since the reverse fixture all the way back in December. And it could prove to be devastatingly costly with Manchester City going into their match with Crystal Palace later in the day knowing that if they win their remaining four matches they will at least finish level on points with Liverpool. Their current superior goal difference could be decisive. Mourinho, although conceding the title, might now reconsider his stance with this win taking them to within two points of Liverpool at the top of the table.
Mourinho’s lineup certainly suggested that he was understandably putting greater focus on Chelsea’s Champions League hopes and the second leg of their semifinal against Atletico Madrid on Wednesday. Tomas Kalas, a 20-year-old Czech defender, made his debut, while the likes of Gary Cahill and Oscar were left out. It was a team still full of experience, however, and from the off it was obvious that they were going to revel in the role of trying to prevent Liverpool from moving to within touching distance of a first championship in 24 years.
Mourinho in textbook pantomime-villain style joined in on the blatant time-wasting, leading Gerrard to wrestle the ball off of him so that he could restart the game. Those methods coupled with an exceptionally well-drilled defensive performance succeeded in stopping Liverpool from getting the type of early momentum that had proved so key to their run of 11 straight victories.
It was a match in which chances were going to be at a premium so it was particularly costly when Liverpool failed to take advantage of the ones that fell their way in the opening half. From Luis Suarez’s deep cross, Philippe Coutinho volleyed wide of the near post, while Mamadou Sakho looked every bit a defender out of his comfort zone when blasting over after a cross fell his way six yards out.
Although Kalas missed a good chance from a corner, Chelsea were doing little, even on the counter attack, to suggest that they would pose much of a threat to a backline that has been Liverpool’s weak link.
It was completely out of the blue then when Chelsea went in front in the third minute of injury time. Gerrard, who had moved into his now familiar position between his two center-backs, let a pass run across him just inside his own half, but then crucially slipped to let Ba pounce. From there the Chelsea striker deserves huge credit for keeping calm as he raced through on goal and applied a clinical finish low under Simon Mignolet.
The goal sucked some of the life out of Anfield. In the second half, a palpable sense of tension, desperation and frustration with Chelsea’s tactics set into both the supporters and the players. Chelsea were blocking off the center of the pitch extremely effectively, allowing Liverpool no way through. Even after Daniel Sturridge made his return from injury off the bench, what threat they did pose was limited to hopeful crosses and shots from outside the box.
Gerrard’s anxious desire to atone for his error was impossible to miss in the second half. The midfielder had several trademark efforts from 20-25 yards but unlike so often in his career there was to be no heroic thunderbolt. Goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer was equal to everything Gerrard threw at him, while the veteran Australian also dealt superbly with a well-struck volley from Joe Allen.
Suarez could make little impact, and when a half-chance fell his way in injury time to keep the title race in Liverpool’s hands, his effort was too close to Schwarzer. In the final seconds, with Liverpool stranded up field, Torres broke clear and laid the ball aside for Willian to finish into an unguarded net and confirm yet another major swing in this most unpredictable of title races. The only thing that could have made the day more painful for Liverpool fans would be if their former striker would have put the ball into the net himself.