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Chelsea’s advantage grows despite draw at Liverpool

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Liverpool v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

A draw? What is that? Nobody’s keeping track of these things, but the Blues’ run of games without seeing the scoreline end level must have been reasonably close to an English record. Since finding themselves held 2-2 at Swansea, Chelsea had gone a ridiculous 23 matches without a draw. That run had to end sometime, and it ended at Anfield.

It very nearly didn’t. In terms of table position, the result wasn’t too bad: before our match finished we’d already found out that the other erstwhile title contenders had dropped points, with Arsenal stumbling to a 2-1 home defeat against Watford and Tottenham Hotspur getting David Moyesed at the Stadium of Light. But while a look at the table might be soothing, it’s hardly enough to take the sting out of a late penalty miss that would have finished Liverpool off for good.

The Reds have had a woeful January, finding themselves knocked out of two cup competitions and dropping points left and right in the league. It was only a month ago that Jurgen Klopp’s side were considered as Chelsea’s closest rivals in the title race, fastforward to now and they were battling for their top-four lives. Boosted by the return of Saido Mane from the Africa Cup of Nations and a hasty court date rearrangement that released Roberto Firmino for the match, Liverpool came out swinging.

In the reverse fixture too the Blues were pushed back from the start. At Stamford Bridge Chelsea leaked chances, ultimately blundering into a 2-0 deficit that they could never quite turn around. Liverpool attempted a similar trick here, but this time Chelsea were ready for them, parrying every attempt at Thibaut Courtois’ goal with little more than a yawn. The Reds had possession, but no idea what to do with it.

David Luiz, on the other hand, had plenty of ideas for what to do with it. The flamboyant defender has scored more goals against us than for us since mid-2013, but apparently he was saving up for the trip to Liverpool. His free kick managed the rare feat of combining utter technical brilliance with profound humiliation, doled out to Simon Mignolet.

The goalkeeper, assuming that a Willian curler was on the cards, made the mistake of turning away from the play after Mark Clattenburg had blown his whistle. Spotting this, Luiz sprinted forward — a run reminiscent of that famed penalty in Munich — and rocketed a shot in off the base of the near post; Mignolet was left helpless and shame-faced as he picked the ball out of the net. Chelsea’s celebrations were suitably Luizian.

Liverpool v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

Another free kick nearly doubled our lead, with Willian throwing a more traditional delivery that invited touches from both Nemanja Matic and Luiz but failed to find either. Mostly, however, the Blues were content to sit on 1-0. They’d taken everything Liverpool could throw at them and brushed it away with contempt. What was the harm in waiting for them to make a mistake and blazing forward on the counterattack?

Firmino gave us a hint of how dangerous a 1-0 lead can be when a lucky bounce furnished him with a very presentable close-range opportunity just after the break. But the Brazilian seemed just as surprised as the Chelsea defence that the ball had broken his way, and he could only lash his first-time effort high into the stands. At the other end, Victor Moses responded by mugging James Milner and scuffing a shot against the post.

It was Firmino’s chance rather than Moses’ that pointed to how the match was going, however. Chelsea’s back line had lost a little of the glamour that seemed to surround it in the first half, and Liverpool began targetting it a little more systematically. Antonio Conte has the side drilled very well, but there are still weaknesses to exploit, and the Reds found the same path to Thibaut Courtois’ goal that Tottenham used to such devastating effect at White Hart Lane.

That’s not to say that they didn’t get their fair share of luck, however. Adam Lallana’s silly shot was well-blocked only to find its way to Jordan Henderson, whose clever clipped pass to Milner was met with a botched header back into the centre. Unfortunately for Chelsea, Moses’ attempt to clear constituted little more than a flick on for Giorgino Wijnaldum, whose close-range finish left Courtois with no chance.

Frustrated with seeing his side pegged back, Conte began making changes, withdrawing the disappointing Eden Hazard for Pedro as the Blues looked to reclaim the lead. He would have been buoyed, however, by watching N’Golo Kante’s second-half transformation from ridiculously good midfielder to Makelele squared. Rather than gain any momentum from their goal, Liverpool suddenly found themselves confronted by the little Frenchman wherever they turned. It was a ludicrous performance and the foundation for Chelsea’s attempt to leave Anfield with all three points, an attempt which very nearly came off.

Joel Matip’s reputation as a defensive stalwart has probably been a little inflated by his absence from Klopp’s side through injury. He’s a monster in the air and strong on the ground, but has always been prone to an error or two, and was guilty of a spectacularly ill-judged dangle of the foot on the other-wise quiet Diego Costa. Feeling contact, Costa was only too happy to go down and wait for Mark Clattenburg’s decision. Clattenburg rewarded the striker with a penalty.

With Hazard off the pitch, Costa stepped forward to take the spot kick, knowing that going 2-1 up in the 77th minute would almost certainly be enough to seal three points. It was not to be, however: his weak attempt was easily saved by Mignolet and the match remained level.

Cesc Fabregas was Conte’s next throw of the dice. Coming on with ten minutes against a clearly exhausted Liverpool midfield (you’d be tired too if you had to face eighteen N’Golo Kantes simultaneously for most of a half), Fabregas routinely found space to play in, and his famed passing range caused the hosts’ defence some real problems. But despite generating plenty of chances to snatch back their advantage, Chelsea couldn’t finish the deal, and even had to survive a late scare when Firmino headed straight at Courtois in injury time.

Disappointing? Yes, certainly, especially with that penalty miss. But at the end of the day, Chelsea’s lead atop the table grew with a draw, and although we blew a chance to put another nail in Liverpool’s coffin, it’s difficult to be too distressed about coming away from one of our toughest fixtures with a nine-point lead. Arsenal next.