Chelsea had been given lifelines in the last two rounds with Liverpool failing to beat Stoke City at home, and Tottenham following suit by losing to West Bromwich at the Hawthorns. Today, it was time for the Blues to take these chances by their own hands and keep up their hopes of reaching that oh-so-valuable top four finish in the Premier League.
They did not let us down. With a hard-fought 1-0 lead earned with a goal by Olivier Giroud in the first-half, Chelsea held strong to take another step towards an improbable, but still reachable, Champions League classification via the domestic league.
From the team set out on the 3-5-2 that beat Swansea 1-0 at Liberty Stadium last weekend, the only change was left wing-back Marcos Alonso, returning from a three-game suspension, in place of Emerson. Striker Álvaro Morata, who could fill in Oliver Giroud’s shoes depending on how the game turned out, continued his streak of bad luck in his debut season by picking an injury during training just a day before the game.
And despite their tense and tiring meeting with Roma last Wednesday for the Champions League’s semifinal, Liverpool got out in full force as they have yet to clinch a spot in the competition next season via Premier League. In this key match-up to Chelsea, manager Jürgen Klopp made only one change in the starting line-up by replacing midfielder Jordan Henderson with right-back Nathaniel Clyne. Youngster Trent Alexander-Arnold would be the one picking up the slack from Hendo in the 4-3-3 midfield.
Even at home and on relatively good form with four consecutive wins — a first for us this year — Chelsea set themselves defensively at home, initially sitting back and waiting for Liverpool to do as they could with the ball.
This may have left most Blues fans irritated as it is yet another example of Antonio Conte’s “reactive” approach. But given how one of Liverpool’s main strengths lies on counter-pressing, as in taking the ball from their opponents the moment they have it in their grasp, it was a smart plan to give the ball to the Reds.
It showed on how they were simply unable to make any forays further than halfway into the pitch, as Chelsea were great in occupying spaces in centre and even on the wings to leave Liverpool frustrated. Surely their tiredness, combined with an array of injuries to key players over the last few months, helped us. Nevertheless, we are not going to complain about it.
Only once Liverpool managed to find a breakthrough in the first few minutes with Alexander-Arnold going long to find Roberto Firmino. The Brazilian easily broke from Antonio Rüdiger’s marking with blistering acceleration, making Thibaut Courtois work for the first time in the match. The Belgian won the duel.
For what it is worth, Liverpool were not complete pushovers. They forced Chelsea multiple times into going long on their attempts to play from the back, and won the ensuing duels frequently thanks not only to winning aerial challenges peppered all over the pitch but also Courtois’ poor work with his punts.
All of that lasted for a good portion of the first 15 minutes. Afterwards the game evened out, as Liverpool probably felt their tired legs taking over. At least James Milner did, as he started limping and forcing his midfield colleagues to complement his inaction.
In fact, Chelsea kept getting the best of chances in their advances. One of them had Victor Moses, who was often forgotten by Liverpool’s defence, taking the ball to Liverpool’s defensive third and crossing it to one of many Chelsea players in the Reds’ box. It was met by both Bakayoko and Giroud, who tried to occupy the same space at the same time. And so the basic laws of physics impeded either of them from getting a clear shot at Loris Karius’ goal, wasting what had been the game’s best chance of opening the scoreline.
Our momentum kept increasing. The entire team were doing well in their tasks, with the highlights being good work from Tiémoué Bakayoko and N’Golo Kanté in the midfield, combined with Moses punishing Liverpool for their defensive lapses on his right flank. And when called into action, T-Bo and the defensive line were just as good.
Yet another important tackle from N'Golo Kanté, this time stopping Sadio Mané in full stride on the counter. What a player. #CFC pic.twitter.com/dY6cq30I41— Chelsea GIFs (@ChelseaGIFs) May 6, 2018
On the ball, Liverpool tried to move forward with short passes. Occasionally they would attempt going long, only to meet the head of a Chelsea defender or the feet of either Kanté or Bakayoko to bolster their interception stats. Whereas the Blues attempted to catch the Reds off-guard, with counters and long passes all day. So often we tried those that we were increasingly threatening to score.
In due course, we did.
Once known for mishitting five-yard passes, Bakayoko lounged over to Moses a great pass to switch the flow of the play from left to right. Then the Nigerian, carrying the fame of growing defensive solidity while losing some of his attacking prowess this season, took his marker out of play to put on another accurate cross to Liverpool’s box. This time there was no confusion between Chelsea players as Giroud rose higher than any other player to deflect the ball into the net. 1-0 to the good guys.
Accordingly, Liverpool got desperate. They were already letting plenty of space for Chelsea to exploit and it only worsened — for their side — once we scored.
The Blues almost got a second goal with Hazard, while Liverpool aimlessly passed the ball between defenders. Their upfront players dropped back to fruitlessly try to carry the ball forward.
And Chelsea just kept themselves strong as a rock, defending deep and frustrating Liverpool on the pitch and the sidelines. Thus, an irate and desolated Klopp went down the Stamford Bridge tunnel seeing his side losing to the hosts.
Having the lead would mean Chelsea attempting to slow things down a bit. However those were not Liverpool’s intentions, as they attempted to keep the game a high-octaned affair.
The figure cut here was very similar to the first half. Although both sides were no longer as defensively solid as they once were and this meant more chances chances for them, Liverpool were still trying to pass themselves into our box, dominating possession as Chelsea sat back and tried to go for killer balls instead.
In this particular battle, Chelsea were clear winners. We continued to infuriate Liverpool and their boss, as they tried in vain to break our lines and the tidy defensive work made by the Blues in our penalty box.
Meanwhile, Chelsea on the ball befuddled Liverpool. There was Eden Hazard carving Liverpool’s right flank open, beating defenders, midfielders and attackers alike to almost score our second goal of the match all by himself. On the opposite side Moses was not as brilliant, but remained effective in his task to punish the Reds from going too far into our areas without proper cover at their back.
It may have been a tactical decision, and a baffling one at best from Klopp if he did so. But Liverpool’s front three seemed more static than usual, when their strength is in their constant switches to draw defenders out and create space for them and their colleagues to attack and pick up several goals. Although Chelsea themselves were not fools to be drawn into this trap, this plan did not work. Especially with Antonio Rüdiger, who had spoken about beating former Roma teammate Mohamed Salah in their personal duels, paying due to his words.
Changes began to take place, although all of them on Liverpool’s side. Amazingly Milner stayed on the pitch until minute 89 of the match-up, as Henderson and former Blue youngster Dominic Solanke took on the pitch in place of Clyne and Andrew Robertson, respectively. It was left-back Alberto Moreno who gave the versatile 32-year-old a break.
Eventually, Conte remembered that he too could make changes. He then brought on Willian, Davide Zappacosta and Pedro for Eden, Moses and Cesc Fàbregas respectively in the last 5 minutes of regular time, and 4 minutes of added injury time.
Solanke’s entrance had Liverpool changing their attacking plans by quite a bit. As their attempts at stringing passes and finding space to take shots at Courtois were not working, the new way to find the tying goal would be with crosses to the area with the centre-forward as the primary target of those passes.
Funnily enough, it was Alonso with a world-class finish rather than the entirety of Liverpool who got himself closer to scoring.
The last minutes of the match were a bit nervy as Chelsea closed up shop and let Liverpool try their best at breaking apart a wall of sheer willpower made by our defenders.
And they didn’t.
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