10 May 2015

Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea

Terry 5'
Gerrard 44'

Too little, too late, and still not quite good enough.

Stop me if you've heard this one before. Liverpool played well enough, but struggled to create chances, really struggled to put shots on-target, and stupidly conceded from a set play. I know. It's stunning. Completely unexpected. I'll give you a moment to collect yourselves.

It's not as if Chelsea were already on the beach, but they certainly weren't at the apex of their powers either. The early set play goal – Terry's header from a corner in the 5th minute, eluding Lambert's marking – set the storyline. All Chelsea had to do was defend. Maybe it's a different match if Fabregas is rightly sent off in the 2nd minute for a horrific tackle on Sterling, but it's little surprise that he wasn't.

A Mourinho side, if nothing else, knows how to defend. Clog the toilet, kill the tempo, kill the game. If you get a chance to counter, great, but they weren't really bothered and Liverpool's defense – Can, Skrtel, Lovren, and Johnson – defended fairly well.

Chelsea do it better than anyone else, and it's a major reason why they're champions.

And thus, we got the slog. Chelsea dominating possession without many chances, Liverpool unable to create much meaningful from open play when getting the ball to the other end, limited to a narrow angle strike by Johnson into the side-netting, a couple of blocked efforts from Coutinho, Sterling dragging a shot wide from the top of the box. Coutinho marked by two players at all times, Chelsea's fullbacks usually winning their one-on-one duels with Sterling and Lallana, Lambert unable to find space because he was apparently running through molasses the entire time.

But then, just before halftime, an equalizer in the same vein as Liverpool's winner eight days ago. Henderson's byline free kick, Gerrard fighting for a point-blank header. Now, at the end of his career, another reminder of the damage he can do in the box on the end of set plays instead of taking all of them. Another reminder that he's one of the few match-winners, the few big-game players in Liverpool's squad. Another reminder of how much he'll be missed next season, despite all the complaints (many deserved) about his performances this season.

Two instances of poor marking, two goals from club (and former England) captains, everything level at half-time.

To their credit, Liverpool were much better after the interval. And it wasn't really a formation tweak, but giving the full-backs and wingers more freedom to roam, recognizing that Chelsea weren't really doing much to attack those positions. Almost as if Liverpool needed to be reminded that they had to take the game to the opposition. Sterling, Coutinho, and Lallana rotated constantly, Can and Johnson both got forward more and came inside more. Coutinho and Lallana (twice) went close, their shots narrowly wide or blocked.

So Mourinho responded, bringing on Matic for debutant Loftus-Cheek. The best defensive midfielder in the league, and at least in the conversation for best in Europe. And he absolutely shut down the match, with Liverpool limited to a couple of efforts from Sterling creating solely because of his ability with the ball at his feet, both saved by Courtois: the first easily, the second deftly, the threat coming because of a deflection. Otherwise, passing lanes gone. Space in the final third, gone. It wasn't all down to Matic, but he was the linchpin. As he's been all season.

Rodgers brought on Sinclair – only his second Liverpool appearance, his first in the league – and Ibe, and while it was fun to see the two teenagers on at the same time, neither were able to make the needed difference. Sinclair's movement was better than Lambert, but he still couldn't find many openings, Ibe had a few threatening runs with no end product. But it was still a moment for optimism, and some much-needed valuable experience. Along with Sterling, it was a front three with an average age of 19 years old.

Liverpool pressed harder and harder at the end, needing a goal to keep the infinitesimal hope for fourth alive, but in the final five minutes, Courtois somehow found Coutinho's deflected effort, Henderson and Can's half-volleys went wide.

So yes, there was a little bit that was good. A little bit of hope for the future. Liverpool played 390 minutes against Chelsea this season and conceded just one goal from open play: Costa's winner at Anfield way back in November. Liverpool defended well against a team with Chelsea's firepower whether playing 4-3-3 or 3-4-3. Pity about the four set play goals conceded, though: corners in both league matches, a penalty and free kick in the League Cup semifinals.

At the same time, Brendan Rodgers has now failed to win any of Liverpool's away matches against a top-four side. Three seasons: four draws and seven losses. And this was the first draw this season, after the much more meaningful losses at City, Arsenal, and United. Liverpool have still failed to beat Chelsea in any of Rodgers' eight matches against the club.

Results in big games. Actually scoring goals. Not conceding on set plays. Liverpool's problems remain clear, and remain the same.

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