Previous Matches against Chelsea:
2014-15: 1-1 Chelsea (h; League Cup), 1-2 Chelsea (h)
2013-14: 0-2 Chelsea (h), 1-2 Chelsea (a)
2012-13: 2-2 Chelsea (h), 1-1 Chelsea (a)
All Statistics via WhoScored.
Nota Bene: Here's the formation diagram usually included in match reviews.
So close, yet so far. Again.
And it's because of Liverpool's set play defense, something we thankfully haven't mentioned in a while (*waves at Balotelli*), and Liverpool's inability to put its shots on-target, something we've mentioned far, far too often.
Through 210 minutes, the league's dominant team and top scorers couldn't conjure a single open play goal. They needed a penalty in the first leg and an extra-time set play header to beat Liverpool. Liverpool's much-maligned defense, much-maligned goal keeper kept them at bay throughout. Lucas, Skrtel, and Can were outstanding, Mignolet made three marvelous saves, Sakho defended well before going off through injury (although passed sloppily at times), and even Glen Johnson resembled a professional footballer.
But it wasn't enough. Because Liverpool struggle to score at the best of times, and really, really struggled to score against the league's second-best defense and best goalkeeper.
Unlike in the previous leg, Liverpool weren't foiled by a deep defense blocking shots and an in-form goalkeeper. Chelsea blocked just two of Liverpool's 16 shots; they blocked six of 19 a week ago. Courtois had to make two excellent saves yesterday, but both were in the first 30 minutes: on Moreno and Coutinho.
Liverpool simply could not hit the target. Liverpool's last eight shots, from the 82nd minute onward, were all off-target. Every single one, whether Balotelli or Lambert's worse-than-speculative efforts or Henderson's clear-cut headed chance. Liverpool have been erratic in front of goal all season long, but yesterday was the worst possible time to be erratic. Chelsea aren't going to give you many chances at Stamford Bridge. You've got to take them. Like Bradford City did on Saturday. But Liverpool simply couldn't.
That's the alpha and omega of yesterday's match, despite the Diego Costa talking points, the should-have-been penalty on Skrtel talking point, potential red cards for Henderson and Lucas talking point. And that's the alpha and omega of Liverpool's season to date.
It's beating a dead horse into the ground and setting the horse's corpse on fire at this point, but blame for this season lies squarely at this summer's transfer business and the enigmatic and inscrutable transfer committee. Sturridge's injury couldn't be predicted but should have been planned for, and Suarez was replaced by Balotelli, Borini, and Lambert.
Balotelli was Balotelli yesterday: some decent tricks and passes, questionable and wayward shots, a dire lack of movement and understanding of the players around him, and switching off while man-marking Chelsea's most dangerous header of the ball on the game-winning set play. Of course, I'm also not sure why Balotelli was marking Ivanovic, but he was. Kind of.
Lambert was Lambert: the last throw of the dice and unable to make an impact.
Borini was Borini: not even included in the squad.
That Raheem Sterling – barely 20 years old, playing out of position – has been Liverpool's most effective striker this season says everything.
I blame the players, but I don't blame the players. They are what they are, and we've seen it all season long. So I blame whomever bought them, and the manager for how he uses them. It's not as if Rodgers had options upon options but none of Liverpool's subs helped the side. The first was enforced, but the latter two were just throwing on strikers in the hope something would happen, at the expense of the midfield and the flanks. But, to be fair, it's also the manager who fixed many of this side's problems from earlier in the season.
Meanwhile, Mourinho's first substitution made a massive impact: Ramires helped solidify the midfield, mitigating Coutinho's impact – by far the most dangerous player in the first half – and gave Chelsea more impetus going forward.
The litany of complaints make the performance sound worse than it was. Liverpool went toe-to-toe with a far better team, a far better squad, a far more expensive squad. It was just Liverpool's second loss – a loss that came in extra time, no less – in the last 17 matches in all competitions. It honestly wasn't bad, and it was certainly better than we'd seen against Chelsea when these sides met in the league earlier this season, and better than the league match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last season.
But it wasn't good enough. It really wasn't good enough in front of goal. And that's what everyone will remember.