29 December 2013

Liverpool 1-2 Chelsea

Skrtel 4'
Hazard 17'
Eto'o 34'

That was familiar. Because it was a worse version of Thursday's match at Manchester City. Déjà vu all over again.

The last two matches have seen Liverpool ruthlessly punished for the small squad and injuries to crucial players. For the third consecutive fixture, all in the last eight days, Liverpool's only change came at left-back, with Agger replacing Cissokho. And Liverpool's midfield looked completely fatigued, the same players (read: Johnson, Skrtel, and, to a lesser extent, Mignolet) continued making mistakes, even Suarez showed signs of wear and tear. Chelsea have played more matches than Liverpool over the festive period, but their vastly deeper squad allowed for four changes from the last match – a nearly full-strength XI if not for Ramires' suspension – allowed for Chelsea to overcome an early injury to Ivanovic with no ill effects.

Early goals are usually good for Liverpool, the last two matches aside. But as stupid as it sounds, today's might have been too early. Skrtel's 4th minute goal raised hopes, capitalizing on Liverpool's first set play, as Suarez knocked down Coutinho's delivery and the Slovakian mopped up the rebound from close range, but Chelsea immediately penned Liverpool back.

Liverpool's midfield was immediately overrun as Chelsea dominated possession. It was obvious that the players suffered from the quick rebound from the last match, especially those in Liverpool's engine room, as Henderson, Allen, and Lucas could barely get a foot on the ball. Hazard and Willian provided constant threat from the flanks.

A minute after Liverpool's opener, Mignolet was called into action to deny Hazard, with Johnson needing to clear the rebound off the line. In the eighth minute, Cahill put a set play wide from the same position where Skrtel scored from. And in the 12th, Lampard's 30-yard rocket required a magnificent save from Mignolet. It looked like a matter of time before Chelsea leveled.

It was a matter of time. Another Chelsea break after Liverpool lost possession (Coutinho's attempted throughball to Suarez cut out), slicing and dicing passes through five static Liverpool players in the center circle. Oscar charges at Skrtel, Sakho makes the crucial interceptions, but the ball falls perfectly for Hazard, wonderfully curling a shot into the far corer from the top of the arc.

An equalizer provided little reprieve as Chelsea kept the foot on the gas. Liverpool nearly carved their way through Chelsea's defense for a second, Suarez, Henderson, and Allen combining beautifully after good work from Sterling and Johnson down the right, but Cahill's last ditch block prevented the Welshman from getting a shot off from eight yards out.

That was very much against the run of the play, though, and in the 34th minute, Chelsea took the lead. Again, Chelsea passed through Liverpool's midfield far too easily before finding Azpilicueta on the right, somehow finding space to cross around Agger. Oscar couldn't control, but the ricochet off Sakho somehow fell directly back to Oscar, dancing to byline before a pullback to Eto'o, who'd criminally gotten in front of Skrtel despite that literally being Oscar's only option. As against City, Mignolet really should have prevented the goal after getting a hand to the shot, but I just can't stop glaring at Skrtel for allowing the shot in the first place. Déjà vu all over again. And another goal set up because the ball bounced kindly for Chelsea. Damn you, football gods.

Liverpool's sole response before the interval again fell to Joe Allen in the box on the end of a good move, but this time, Cech saved the shot, with Suarez unable to collect the rebound. Unlike both of Chelsea's goals, this time, the ball bounced unkindly. Like against City, small margins and all that.

39.7% possession in the first half was the third-lowest in any half since Rodgers took over, behind just the second halves in this season's trip to Swansea and last season's trip to Arsenal, matches where Liverpool were trying to protect a result, any result. That's not good. In fact, it's the opposite of good.

Like against City, Liverpool started the second half the better side, finally taking the game to the opposition. And like against City, Liverpool had chances to equalize, chances that they should and could have taken: Sakho heading off the crossbar after a quick 52nd minute free kick, Suarez volleying straight at Cech in the 58th. a carbon copy of his opener against Cardiff except in the finish.

But by the 75th minute, those chances dried up. Like against City. And like against City, Liverpool simply didn't have the personnel to reclaim the edge. Allen's 60th minute injury required a shift in formation, bringing on 19-year-old Brad Smith for his debut, shifting to three at the back. The only other change made was bringing on Aspas for Johnson in the 84th, with Sterling going to wing-back, which was exactly as effective as it was against Manchester City. And like against City, the match ended not with a bang but a whimper. Fernando Torres, King of the Island of Misfit Toys, had the only chance of the last 10 minutes, a Chelsea break which ended with the striker (in name only) shooting straight at Mignolet after a dangerous run.

From first on Christmas Day to fifth to start the New Year. This month's fixtures have laid Liverpool's weaknesses wholly bare, from the utter failure at Hull to just-not-good-enough at both City and Chelsea, no matter the thrashing delivered to Tottenham and strolls past weaker sides at Anfield sandwiched in between. This is the first time that Liverpool have lost consecutive league matches under Rodgers.

Unlike against City, you can't say the loss wasn't deserved. Yes, Chelsea's goals had an element of fortune, yes, Liverpool had opportunities to equalize, but Chelsea were thoroughly the better side. Much of that was due to injuries combined with Liverpool's already small squad making it nigh impossible to rotate players during the festive period pile-up, some of it due to Liverpool and certain players making the same mistakes (especially in defense), less of it due to misfortune, and less of it due to some infuriating refereeing.

No matter. Liverpool are where they are, and that's in fifth, just the second time Liverpool have dropped out of the Champions League places this season, something that hasn't happened since the loss at Hull to start the month. It's been a long December.

Had you told me back in August that Liverpool would be a point off the Champions League places, six points off the top of the table, at the end of 2013, I'd have gladly taken it. That it's a massive disappointment now is an apt demonstration of just how far Liverpool has come over these last five months. This is most assuredly a set-back, but it doesn't seem a season-defining one. The 2013-14 campaign is exactly half over. Players will return from injury and Liverpool look likely to reinforce with at least one new player – and hopefully more – in the January transfer window.

It should get better. It can't be as hard, or as bad, as the last week has been. But Liverpool still have a long way to go before this season is anywhere near successful.


Anonymous said...

Can't say Chelsea didn't fully deserve the win. The Eto goal was pretty dang poor though. Oscar given too much room even while marked by 2 of our guys. Eto also given too much room. And Mig could have done better.

Nothing would hurt more than to be out if the CL spots by 1 point on May. We'll get Sturridge and his goals back soon. Maybe pick up a top/top player in January. We'll get Arse, City, Chelsea, Spurs, Newcastle and Everton at Anfield 2nd half. Only United and Saints away. Lot of work to do to make top 4. Have to win ALL of the "winnable" games.

Hull up next at Anfield. Should be interesting after they just trounced Fulham. Got to win it convincingly and sing some good songs for that big head Brucey.

Anonymous said...

That is an absolute travesty that Smith is playing any kind of minutes at this level. He was a total waste. The old Torres would have put that game away.