Liverpool put in a much-improved performance against league leaders Chelsea, but were unable to get the victory. The hosts were the more positive of the teams and created the most chances, but in the end it was Chelsea who came closest to snatching the win, denied only by a penalty save from Simon Mignolet. On balance a draw was probably the fairest reflection of the game – failure to win is undoubtedly a further dent in Liverpool’s rapidly fading aspirations of a title challenge, but the strong showing against the title favourites has at least given fans reason to hope that the recent awful run is coming to an end.
The quick start was reminiscent of the Liverpool side we saw in the first half of the season. Chelsea barely had the ball in the first ten minutes, and when they were in possession they looked rattled by the high press. Clear-cut chances proved elusive, however: the organised back three repeatedly forced Klopp’s men wide, and as usual the crosses didn’t carry all that much threat. Nonetheless, it was a start that gave reason to be hopeful for a breakthrough; this made David Luiz’s opener on 24 minutes all the more frustrating. It was the visitors’ first shot of the game, and it came from a highly dubious free kick – Hazard and Lallana clashed legs and the Belgian threw himself down. To be fair to Luiz it was a wonderful free kick, flying over the wall and in off the post from a fair distance out. The circumstances, though, were almost comical – Mignolet was still trying to organise his defence when the ball was struck, and had barely had time to look at the ball before it was in the back of the net. This was undoubtedly an error on his part, but it is hard to see why the referee blew the whistle while the keeper was so patently not ready; it was also Mignolet’s first significant error of the entire season, and he certainly atoned for it later on.
This left Liverpool with a big task. The team has been struggling for goals all month, and now faced the challenge of finding a way through one of the most organised defensive units in the league. They continued to push after going behind, but for the rest of the first half were unable to create anything of any real quality. After the break, however, they came out with almost tangible determination. The game slowly but surely started to open up, with some quick passes creating space that hadn’t been available in the first period. One such pass found Firmino in vast space in the box, but the Brazilian panicked, took it first time and blazed it well wide. Not too long afterwards Liverpool were in again, and this time they took the chance. Jordan Henderson played a lovely first time ball to James Milner, whose header across the box was met emphatically by Gini Wijnaldum. At this point the momentum was firmly with Liverpool, who continued to push – it would have been nice to get Mane on at this point, but having played 120 minutes so recently it isn’t hard to understand why he was only given fifteen minutes.
Although Liverpool were firmly in the ascendency, Chelsea had begun to look dangerous on the counter. Hazard was replaced by the rapid Pedro, and at times the hosts’ back line looked stretched. Were it not for Jordan Henderson, Conte’s men would surely have retaken the lead – substitute Fabregas looked to be clean through, but a last gasp sliding challenge from the captain dispossessed him. Matip had less luck with his tackle – faced with an onrushing Diego Costa, the Cameroonian centre-back stuck out a leg and brought him down. It was probably the right call to give a penalty, but it was undoubtedly soft – it would have been a kick in the teeth to lose to goals from a dubious free kick and penalty. Step forward Simon Mignolet. The keeper has a marvellous penalty-saving record at Liverpool, dating back to his dramatic 90th minute stop against Stoke on his debut, and he pulled out another one at this crucial moment. Usual taker Hazard had been substituted off, and Costa’s effort wasn’t good enough to get past the Liverpool stopper.
So, a point gained or two lost? There was certainly a feeling of frustration after the game, but it was coupled with a begrudging recognition that a draw against Chelsea represented a decent point. It is agonising to see yet another title challenge seemingly fade away, but the realistic aim for Klopp in his first full season was always going to be to get us back into the Champions League. In any case, with fifteen games to go, anything could still happen – after the game the manager urged fans and players alike to keep believing and keep pushing, and this is definitely the right attitude.
The performance certainly gave reason for renewed belief: the three central midfielders in particular put in much-improved performances. Mane’s return is also bound to be a big boost, and Coutinho is slowly getting back up to pace following his long lay-off. January is over now, and there is a feeling that Liverpool can now leave their horrible form behind them. Nobody wanted to crash out of both cups, but what the team is left with now is a clear run. Fifteen games to make the fans proud – let’s keep believing.