An incredible defensive display from Chelsea on Tuesday night exhibited their title credentials as they withstood a barrage of attacking football at Anfield in the League Cup, thanks to some world class saves from Thibaut Courtois, who earned himself the man of the match award.
Chelsea went in to the two-legged tie at Anfield as marginal favourites and their solidity at the back proved why they are likely to lift the Premier League title in May. Though, to give Liverpool their credit, they played their part and dominated Chelsea across the park.
The statistics showed a 68-32% ratio in possession in favour of the home side, while Liverpool’s shot tally of 20 starkly contrasted Chelsea’s two. Although the Reds thoroughly deserved to win this tie by a country mile and then some, Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho will almost definitely feel the tie is now there for the taking as next week’s reverse fixture will take place at Stamford Bridge, which has been a fortress for Chelsea so far this season.
For Liverpool, they have now only lost once in their last 16 games in all competitions, which is a monumental improvement given their poor start to the season and performances in the Champions League.
If you splash over £100 million on transfers, you’re overwhelmingly expected to have a very good start to the season at the very least. Initially it appeared to be a huge waste of money, but if the last few weeks are anything to go on, the likes of Lazar Markovic, Alberto Moreno and Emre Can are slowly yet surely justifying their respective price tags. Adam Lallana, who only recently returned from injury, played the last 20 minutes and was denied by a world-class save from Chelsea keeper Courtois and looked very comfortable in Brendan Rodgers’ new 3-4-3 system. There’s a long way to go, but every Liverpool player had, at the very least, a good game.
Liverpool started the game brightly and put pressure on Chelsea throughout. Although, Chelsea retained their discipline excellently and secured a draw in a game where many other teams would have cracked or seen a man sent off for a late challenge.
When the 17th minute came around, Chelsea were handed a soft, yet fair penalty after Emre Can brought down Eden Hazard, who was simply too quick for the German. Hazard slotted the penalty home, giving the away side the lead, which was massively against the run of play.
This didn’t knock Liverpool, who kept on pressing and pressing. Their best effort came through Steven Gerrard, who was the central character within the chants of both sets of fans, for vastly different reasons. The England legend unleashed a dipping shot that required an athletic save from Thibaut Courtois, assisted by his enormous height. Although the home side pressed on, they only managed to create half-chances, but were playing some beautiful passing football that even Pep Guardiola during his time at Barcelona would have been proud of.
The second-half began and Brendan Rodgers clearly didn’t have a lot to say to his side and likely just said, ‘Do exactly the same in the second half’. They did just that and managed to catch Chelsea napping 15 minutes in to the second-half. Raheem Sterling – who is adapting to his role up front exceptionally – waltzed through the Blues’ defence and slotted home past a, for once, hapless Courtois. The equaliser seemed to galvanise Chelsea momentarily, and they gave Liverpool’s defence something to think about, although they largely failed to trouble the home side much at all. Diego Costa had a half-hearted free-kick appeal waved away by referee Martin Atkinson, but aside from that Costa and co. saw about as much of the ball as they did Chelsea’s history.
Liverpool kept knocking and Steven Gerrard hit the post minutes later after finding himself in acres of space within the Chelsea penalty area. He hit it with his left foot, which is evidently his weaker side, and failed to get enough curl on the ball. Courtois was helpless and ultimately a relieved man.
Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana had the best chances after that, but couldn’t beat an excellent Courtois, who is proving to be once of the world’s best keepers after displacing Petr Cech in the Chelsea goal. As well as the big Belgian, Chelsea’s defence was outstanding too. Gary Cahill, Branislav Ivanovic and John Terry proved essential in containing the ninety-minute long assault.
Thankfully for both teams, neither of them have overly-tough games over the weekend, with both facing lower league opposition in the FA Cup. Liverpool take on Championship side Bolton, while Chelsea face League One’s Bradford City. Both games will provide excellent opportunities for fringe players from both squads to prove themselves and possibly earn a place in the return game next Tuesday.
Interestingly, Liverpool’s defence is often overlooked. Despite setting up each week in a system that, technically, handicaps them by sacrificing a player at the back in compensation for an extra attacker, they have only conceded five goals in their last seven games in all competitions. They have even set a recent record by keeping three clean sheets in a row away from home against Burnley, Sunderland and Aston Villa respectively – a feat that hasn’t been achieved since 2008. It is interesting that this has happened while Glen Johnson has been out of the squad through injury.
The second-leg kicks off at 19:45 on Tuesday January 27, live on Sky Sports 1.