Raheem Sterling scored a brilliant solo effort to keep Liverpool’s hopes of a place in the Capital One Cup final alive following a 1-1 draw with Chelsea in the first leg of their semifinal at Anfield. Trailing to Eden Hazard’s 18th minute penalty following a foul on the Belgian by Emre Can, Liverpool continuously pushed forward in search of parity. And they got their reward just before the hour mark when Sterling surged through the heart of the Chelsea side before delivering the kind of end product that makes the young forward such an exciting talent.
It was certainly the least Liverpool deserved after a vibrant display that continued their gradual return to form of recent weeks. Brendan Rodgers’s men made the running throughout an engaging encounter, with Chelsea happy to sit back and try and expose Liverpool’s often-suspect defense on the break. But Hazard’s penalty was incredibly one of only two shots Jose Mourinho’s men registered at goal in the entire 90 minutes. All the more reason, then, for Liverpool to surely rue the fact that they were unable to take an advantage next week to Stamford Bridge, where Chelsea have failed to win just once in all competitions this season. While failing to turn their pressure into efforts on goal in the opening half, Liverpool were thwarted repeatedly by the again supreme Thibaut Courtois, along with the Chelsea goalkeeper’s post, after Sterling had drawn them level.
Courtois was back in the starting lineup for the first time since New Year’s Day, after recovering from a thumb injury, for one of only two changes made by Mourinho for this rematch of the League Cup final in 2005, which gave him his first trophy in England. The other alteration was to bring John Mikel Obi in for Oscar in what was a clear suggestion toward the Portuguese’s approach at Anfield. While not as extreme as his spoiling tactics at the same stadium to get the win that ended Liverpool’s Premier League title hopes last April, his understandable pragmatism in a two-legged tie was obvious.
Chelsea were pushed back, too, by a Liverpool team that played with the attacking tempo that got them so close to lifting a first championship in 24 years last season and has been so conspicuous by its absence this. But after a fierce effort from captain Steven Gerrard that was tipped over by Courtois, Liverpool’s defensive frailties reappeared to cost them what could prove to be a crucial goal.
Emre Can, who has contributed much to Liverpool’s greater composure at the back and increased attacking fluidity in recent weeks and did so again on Tuesday, was the man at fault, first letting Cesc Fabregas bypass him down the left and then tripping Hazard as he tried to atone for his error. Hazard picked himself up and sent compatriot Simon Mignolet the wrong way from 12 yards.
While Chelsea looked dangerous on the break, Liverpool applied mounting pressure before halftime, but the hosts lacked a cutting edge and Mourinho’s side showed familiar resilience. That pattern continued, although with Chelsea an increasingly sparse attacking force, until Sterling produced a moment of magic to get his side level. Picking up a forward pass from Jordan Henderson, the 20-year-old, who recently returned from his own winter break was allowed too much space by Chelsea’s defensive midfield duo to turn and look toward the opposition area. He then left both Matic and Mikel trailing in his wake before displaying impressive composure to beat Courtois and send the Anfield crowd into raptures.
Having got level, Liverpool seized upon the urgings of the crowd and attempted to capitalize on the momentum. They should have done so when Philippe Coutinho pulled the ball back to Gerrard with time and space to measure a shot at goal. Although on his weaker left foot, the 34-year-old will be bitterly disappointed he could only hit the outside of the post knowing that a goal would have done much to aid his chances of landing some silverware in his final season at Anfield. The frustration continued for Liverpool. Henderson and Sterling tested Courtois’ reflexes before the Belgian stopper produced his best moment of the match with an outstanding one-handed stop to deny a rasping drive from substitute Adam Lallana.
Liverpool more than played their part in a rousing encounter worthy of the two sides’ monumental Champions League clashes in the last decade, but it is Chelsea who hold the upper hand.