Finnan Skrtel Carragher Riise
Kuyt Gerrard Babel
Jorge Valdano would not have been pleased with today’s match. I’d hate to hear what he’d call this having referred to last year’s Champions League semi-final as “shit on a stick.”
It was pretty much par for the course as Liverpool/Chelsea matches go, especially when you consider that both teams were without their top scorer, among others missing.
Neither team had much time on the ball while neither was able to impose their style of play. The midfield was packed, and both teams gave the ball away too cheaply and too often. And predictably, neither side created many chances. In fact, I don’t think Chelsea had a real goal-scoring opportunity until the 81st minute, when Ballack side-footed a volley wide with Reina scrambling.
As far as the first half goes, there were only two truly noteworthy moments. Crouch should have scored in the 18th minute, instead shooting wide, while Chelsea had a penalty claim in the 25th, rightfully not given as Joe Cole threw himself to the ground after letting the ball get away from him.
It’s annoying to say, as it’s been said before and Liverpool still isn’t coming away with a win, but the away side was better in the first half. Liverpool saw more of the ball, wasn’t as wasteful in possession as Chelsea, and created more of the chances. But without Torres, and with Crouch wasting the few opportunities he had, Liverpool was unable to break the deadlock.
Unsurprisingly, Chelsea was much improved in the second half. Liverpool rarely saw as much of the ball, and Chelsea spent far more time in the visitors' half. But they rarely made headway into the penalty box and it still took until the 81st minute for their best chance, which Ballack should have put away. And by fulltime, with Chelsea still pressing but Liverpool holding firm, the draw was deserved.
I’m still a bit confused over Liverpool’s formation today. From just the pre-match line-up it looked like a 4-4-2 with Gerrard on the right, and that’s how the match kicked off. But Gerrard rarely stayed wide, Babel, Gerrard, and Kuyt all switched around, and there were gaps down Liverpool’s right that Ashley Cole exploited, albeit with little end product.
Even though Kuyt’s come in for a lot of stick lately, he’s not the one to blame. Frequently forced out wide, he was limited in scoring chances, but still put in some good crosses. I can’t pretend that Kuyt had a great game, but given where he played and the form he’s in, he’s certainly not a scapegoat for Liverpool’s inability to score.
However, if Crouch is basically a lone striker, I’ve no idea why Benitez wouldn’t use Pennant instead of Kuyt, or at the least, take Kuyt off when he brought Pennant on in the 71st. But Pennant came on for Babel, who showed flashes but not enough composure or end product, and Pennant stayed on the left, where he failed to get into the game.
However, my main concern, other than confusion over Gerrard’s role and the tactics, is that Liverpool is still too reliant on Torres’s goals. Crouch, leading the line in place of Torres, had other opportunities other than Liverpool’s best chance in the 18th minute, but rarely had the air of scoring that’s always around when Torres is on the pitch.
In addition, when Chelsea was pressing Liverpool had chances to counter, but Liverpool rarely looked cohesive on the break.
I still want to emphasize that it was not a bad performance. In fact, given Chelsea’s strength at home and compared to some of Liverpool’s recent matches, there was definite improvement.
Honestly, despite the fact that Liverpool can’t afford many more draws (this was the 11th of the season in 25 matches), Liverpool rarely leaves Stamford Bridge with anything. A draw is an improvement on recent years when Liverpool’s been in better form and still lost at the Bridge.
I know Chelsea was missing players as well (Drogba, Essien, and Kalou, while Lampard was nowhere near fit), but with Torres, Alonso, Agger, Arbeloa, Aurelio and Voronin all absent, Liverpool’s history at Chelsea, and recent results, I’ll take a draw.
Obviously, I’m still concerned about the lack of goals. The attacking play is still too disjointed and at times downright sloppy. But Liverpool’s defense was superb today, as was Chelsea’s.
There were none of the missteps that have plagued recent poor results, nor any freak penalties or own goals (despite Riise strangely heading towards his own net in the 88th minute). Despite the pace and trickery of Chelsea’s attackers, especially on the break, Liverpool was solid throughout the match. All of the defenders did themselves justice, and it was reminiscent of seasons past with those clean-sheet records.
Skrtel was especially outstanding, and showed none of the nervousness that hindered his debut. His tackling and positioning were spot-on, and at times he showed a willingness to bring the ball out of defense himself, which Liverpool has solely lacked since Agger’s injury. And he showed he’s as hard as he looks, falling hard on his wrist early in the second half but coming back on after getting it taped up. I’ll be surprised if he didn’t injure something.
But once again, the man of the match has to be Mascherano, and all the usual accolades apply. He simply is a superlative defensive midfielder, probably the best in the world at his position.
Of course all three points would have been more than welcome, and Liverpool (Crouch especially) will rue not getting the opener when Liverpool was on top in the first half. But the team, particularly the defense, did not play badly, and a draw at Stamford Bridge, where Chelsea hasn’t lost all season and is on a 75-match unbeaten streak, is still something to build on.
Now they need to better it against Barnsley in the 5th round of the FA Cup before Inter a week from Tuesday.