Well, there goes the league title. Happy new year everyone! But, hey, what a way to go. For the second time in two and half weeks Liverpool came to London and played out a wild, impossibly moreish 2-2 draw against occasionally brilliant, occasionally flawed opponents.
This was no doubt an agonising watch for Jurgen Klopp in self isolation; just as it was 90 minutes of full body torture for Thomas Tuchel, who spent the afternoon leaping up like a furious clockwork woodpecker, combination-punching invisible demons, and at one point hurling a bottle of orange energy drink thrillingly into an advert board.
For Liverpool a 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge follows the 2-2 draw at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. And so the ledger will report four points dropped: the kind of matches where title races are lost, seasons bookended.
And yet it didn’t feel like a day for regrets. A five-month extended victory lap for the reigning champions presents a problem for the Premier League and its broadcast partners. It might well reopen the question of exactly how City have managed to build this extraordinary position of strength, a squad with no weaknesses.
Some will point to questions the Premier League feel have yet to be answered over resources and expenditure, questions that are designed, at bottom, to preserve competitiveness. City’s fans might reply by rolling their eyes and pointing to Chelsea’s own absent £100 million striker.
One thing is clear. Flawed teams produce brilliant games. Those spaces, the mis-steps, it’s where the oxygen gets in. And this was a game where amazing things just kept happening. On 56 minutes Liverpool’s defence cleared a corner high into the night sky, Diogo Jota took the ball as it bounced, scrabbled back to his feet under pressure, and laid the bail off to Mo Salah.
From 35 yards Salah produced something hilariously good, a driven chip-shot that drew, in turn, an outstanding stretching leaping save from Edouard Mendy. In that moment this didn’t feel like a football match, more a kind of display, a trick shot bonus feature, Evel Knievel leaping a row of municipal buses.
In reality the idea that this match represented a title race eliminator was always fanciful. Chelsea haven’t looked like contenders since the start of November. Liverpool had won six of their last eight, but will now be losing their first choice attackers. And in the end it’s not you: it’s them. It’s the unwavering excellence of Manchester City, a team that continues to make something very difficult look very easy indeed.
Stamford Bridge was a noisy, gusty place at kick-off. With Romelu Lukaku at home watching Real Madrid, Thomas Tuchel went with that infamous “other system” – also known as the shape that won Chelsea the Champions League: seven primarily defensive players, plus three in attack to press and cover.
The early exchanges were hilariously error-prone, culminating in Trevoh Chalobah stooping to head clear Diogo Jota’s pass and ending up with his nose grazing the turf, somehow, in defiance of all physical laws, heading the ball off his own shoelaces. The ball broke to Sadio Mane. He buried it.
If anything captures Liverpool’s edge of brittleness and brilliance it is the interaction between Trent Alexander-Arnold and Salah, arguably the outstanding single attacking combination in English football over the last decade. It was from there that Liverpool made it 2-0 with a startling moment of synchronised movement and passing physics.
Salah started the move, funnelling the ball back to Alexander-Arnold. As Chelsea’s defenders slackened a little, Salah had already begun to sprint, sniffing out a sliver of space, a fault in the stitching.
Alexander-Arnold released a wonderfully weighted, back-spun pass straight into that same corridor. At which point Salah produced another perfect little miniature. His first touch stunned the ball into his stride. The second wasn’t a touch at all, but a feint, an opening of the hips that transformed Marcos Alonso into a kind of goal-doorman, dipping a knee, scrolling his hand, formally inviting Salah into the Chelsea six yard box.
The finish was effortless, a lifted dink-prod on the run.
Mateo Kovacic pulled one back with another stunner. Everyone who has ever kicked a ball has caught one like this just the once – leaning back, adjusting his feet, punting it up and then back down in a perfect parabola to clank in off the far post. But not perhaps, in a brutally tight Premier League game in front of the watching millions, with just one shot, one moment to catch the sun.
And Chelsea’s equaliser moments later came down that same Liverpool right flank. Frankly, it all seemed a little too easy.
Salah lost possession. Alexander-Arnold was caught dawdling in a half space. N’Golo Kante was able to help the ball on for Christian Pulisic, who conjured a fine finish of his own, arcing the ball over Kelleher with a perfectly lobbed instep touch.
And the fact is neither of these teams is at the level of City, whose football has a kind of light around it right now, something clean and perfectly ordered, who have won 11 games in a row by passing and moving their opponents into a state of exhausted impotence.
It would be absurd to denigrate a team this good for being, in effect too good, for winning games in a way that is so beautifully planned and drilled it seems to creep ever ever closer to a place where variables are removed, and the result is, in effect, inevitable. City are thing of beauty too.
And on the ragged, thrilling evidence of Stamford Bridge just too good for the rest. – Guardian