Injuries finally caught up to the Blues as two sublime strikes from Fernando Torres led Liverpool to victory at Anfield. While the hosts played relatively well, the story of the match was Chelsea's miserable performance in the first half, an epically bad 45 minutes that a strong second half couldn't salvage. A Chelsea XI without Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, and Didier Drogba is never ideal, but the midfielders were particularly missed as Liverpool dominated the centre for the opening half.
It was all pretty sloppy from both sides until Torres broke through in the 11th minute following a delightful lofted pass from fit-again Dirk Kuyt. The flight of the ball took Terry completely out of the picture, and following a divine first touch the Spaniard was able to clip the ball past the advancing Petr Cech and into the back of the net. It's hard to fault Terry for being caught out by a beautiful pass, especially since Torres hasn't been anything like his usual self so far this year, but what was bizarre was the total failure to close Kuyt down once he had the ball.
Liverpool were fairly comfortable at 1-0, even when Chelsea started to settle down after their relatively weak start. Ramires and John Obi Mikel were looking out of sorts, and out of the midfield three only Yuri Zhirkov was anything approaching competent in the opening half. However, he spent more time pushed out left than in the middle, which left the Blues with nobody to link up with Nicolas Anelka up front, even with the striker dropping back to find space. Naturally, this made containing Chelsea a relatively easy proposition for Hodgson's team, and they defended very professionally whenever Chelsea could compose and attack.
Salomon Kalou had the best of Chelsea's chances to equalise, first heading straight at Pepe Reina after an Ashley Cole cross and then being denied by the referee's whistle after a Martin Skrtel slip left him through on goal - Howard Webb insisting that there had been foul play on the part of the Ivorian when there very clearly was none. It would be churlish, however, to imply bias on behalf of the referees, since Mr. Webb gave some very strange calls in Chelsea's favour as well.
The ease with which Liverpool were denying Chelsea left the Blues searching for new ideas. With Ramires playing like a six-year old, there was nobody to replace Michael Essien's surging runs from midfield, which led to Ashley Cole deciding to give it a shot. Unfortunately for the left-back, Raul Meireles intervened in the centre circle, drove forward, and slung a pass towards Torres, who was lurking with intent at the right corner of Chelsea's box. Torres found space, cut the ball onto his right foot, and sent a perfect curling shot past three defenders and a helpless Petr Cech for a glorious second for Liverpool. It was Liverpool's second real chance of the match.
The game was still winnable at 1-0, as Chelsea's escapades at Ewood Park showed, but it was a far trickier proposition at 2-0, especially since the centre of the pitch was looking about as sturdy as a papier-mache skyscraper in a hurricane. Terry was getting frustrated and miraculously escaped a booking after assaulting Torres while challenging for a header, and Yuri Zhirkov picked up a booking for clipping Lucas as he made a strong run towards an exposed Chelsea rearguard. Two goals aside, Chelsea remained strong in defence, crowding out Liverpool's forward players in a swarm of blue shirts whenever the hosts threatened.
Carlo Ancelotti changed things up at the break, introducing Drogba for Kalou. While Drogba as the centre forward does indeed affect Chelsea's shape, the main force behind the Blues improved play in the second half was regression as Mikel and Ramires both flirted with the idea of being halfway competent players. It was somewhat surprising that Josh McEachran wasn't introduced for Ramires after the Brazilian's dire first half performance, but with Ancelotti committed to introducing Drogba he didn't have the flexibility with his substitutions that he might have wanted.
Liverpool were well prepared for a second half onslaught from Chelsea, and weathered the storm for a good fifteen minutes before cracks appeared. The first warning sign was Yuri Zhirkov forcing Reina into a save at his near post, and shortly thereafter Ramires headed over unmarked from a good Ashley Cole cross. The Blues should have scored after a great pass by Drogba found Florent Malouda free in front of the goal, but Malouda's finish was slightly scuffed, allowing Reina to pull off a spectacular diving save when 90% of the time the ball finds the net.
Ivanovic, who had been solid but unspectacular going forward on the right, was replaced in the 70th minute by Jose Bosingwa. The substitution failed to have the desired effect, seeming to disrupt Chelsea after a very strong spell, and let Liverpool back into the game before the Blues re-established themselves. Unfortunately, Bosingwa was no better than Ivanovic on the right flank, being starved of both service and space as Chelsea forcused their attentions on the left.
There was time enough for Daniel Sturridge to come on for Yuri Zhirkov, and the England under-21 international had a few chances to trouble Reina but never quite managed it, seeing one shot blocked and then spending an infinity trying to shift the ball to his favoured left foot rather than just let fly with the right. The best chance of the match, however, fell to Nicolas Anelka, whose driven low shot was somehow diverted onto the underside of the crossbar by Reina and mopped up by Jamie Carragher before Malouda could convert the loose ball.
It was to be Chelsea's last chance of the game, but Howard Webb managed to mess up a few more things on the night, first failing to send Alex off after the defender clattered David Ngog when the striker had a clear run on goal before deciding that Maxi's fall in the box was somehow neither a dive nor a penalty (I lean towards penalty, myself, but it's clearly one or the other rather than nothing). Three minutes of injury time later, Webb managed to blow for full time without somehow asphyxiating himself in the process, which was surely the highlight of his evening.
Full credit to Liverpool for playing a very solid game, and Torres's two goals really did deserve to win the match. Chelsea paid the price for sleepwalking through the first 45 minutes, and it was clear that they were missing the drive of Michael Essien and the intelligence of Frank Lampard. The second half was much, much better, and if they had played like that for the full match more often than not they would be walking away from Anfield with a comfortable win. As it stood, though, their rally was too little, far too late.