Anfield faithful crestfallen but title race far from over
Premier League : Chelsea display an excellent reminder of defensive play at its finest
Jose Mourinho: Jose Mourinho: greeted Willian’s goal with a furious dance. Photograph: PA
The title race is not over for Liverpool. A defeat by a Chelsea team of impossibly cussed defensive qualities does not represent a dead end: it just felt like one on an afternoon of expertly enacted constriction at Anfield. At the end of which reports of Jose Mourinho’s demise appear to have been exaggerated.
For yesterday’s man, Chelsea’s manager appears to have had a particularly good few days. And for a man who had apparently almost given up on this match, Chelsea’s manager appeared to care about it quite a lot in stoppage time as he greeted Williian’s second goal in the 2-0 victory with a furious touchline dance, banging his chest, waggling his arms and communing with the delirious supporters in their sunlit corner.
Chelsea will probably not end up title-winners this season but they would seem to have had a fairly decisive say at the last in who will, after a brilliantly engineered defensive performance. The debate on what kind of spectacle we are allowed to expect or demand will continue in the background to this game but on this occasion, as in Madrid last Tuesday, Mourinho’s team has exposed an opponent’s weaknesses through relentlessly focusing on their own strengths.
The fact remains Chelsea have failed to concede a goal in 180 minutes of football away from home in the past six days against the top teams in La Liga and the Premier League. In the process they have not only stopped three strikers with 90 goals this season between them from scoring, they have also limited Diego Costa, Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge to only one shot on target.
“We can beat your bus,” the home fans sang at one point and Liverpool’s fans remained brilliantly united in their support for their team’s attempt to penetrate the blue forest. In the wider world the usual buzzwords have already been klaxoning around the place - bus parked, enemy of football, anti-whatnot - rallying calls of those unwilling to grant credit for what Mourinho, master of the defensive disciplines, does so well.
In fairness, this degree of defensive organisation and physical resilience really translates as a spectacle only in the flesh. But it is a necessary part of the wider picture, like it or not, just as the attacking brilliance of a previous age - Diego Maradona springs to mind - was given its lustre by the savage physicality of the times.
Without this kind of extreme, compressed defensive discipline to overcome, where is the fun, or indeed the nobility, in winning? Victory is not supposed to come cheaply. Before this match Chelsea had scored three times away from home since 1 March and yet they are now four wins and a couple of improbable results elsewhere from winning the Premier League and Champions League. If you cannot see the beauty in that - beautiful defensive engineering, beautiful chutzpah - you may be watching the wrong sport.
For all that, Liverpool will feel agonisingly hard done by, their relentless commitment to attack deserving of some luck to go with the ambition. Mourinho may have snuck a suckerpunch below the league leader’s guard but Brendan Rodgers’s team gave everything, running themselves to the point of exhaustion and doing justice, as they always would, to the wonderful noise around Anfield throughout this match.
On a lovely spring afternoon Anfield was once again crackling around its corrugated stands. For all the talk of bare bones and second strings Chelsea fielded a team of full internationals, with a sold-looking central fulcrum in Mikel John Obi and the excellent Nemanja Matic, who levered himself around the pitch to great telescopic purpose, the most tactful of destroyers. Behind him the 20-year-old Czech Tomas Kalas, asked to mark the Premier League’s leading scorer away from home on his first senior start, had a superbly mobile and decisive match.
Liverpool have often managed to blow away the opposition in the first 30 minutes at home. So Chelsea used spoiling tactics, taking a minute to faff about over their first goal-kick, then another to reset after an early foul. And even as Liverpool settled into their role, dominating possession and territory, the eye was continually drawn to Mourinho’s interferences from the touchline.
The opening goal when it came was cruel. Steven Gerrard slipped and was left struggling on the floor as Demba Ba, who had up until that point played most of the half scrabbling on his backside like a man enthusiastically mastering the basics of break-dancing, carried the ball forward and slipped it past Simon Mignolet.
And so it carried on, a match to crick the neck, with Chelsea’s attacks limited to swift and threatening counterattacks. With 32 minutes left Rodgers played his attacking hand, bringing on Daniel Sturridge to play with Suarez, albeit - whisper it - both of Liverpool’s strikers have experienced a slight tensing with the finish line in sight.
Sturridge has scored only once at Anfield since the start of last month. Suarez has only two goals in six Premier League games and, oddly enough, two goals at Anfield since New Year’s Day: evidence of a more condensed approach from visiting teams, closing down the defensive wormholes in which he thrives.
In the end, Liverpool could not find another gear and foundered trying to unpick a performance of almost perverse defensive solidity. Do not call it anti-football: this was simply football.
Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2014