The result against Roma on Wednesday night was ideal but it saw us through to the Champions League final, thus pandemonium and blind optimism among Liverpool supporters since. It is true that there is a lot to be excited about but there are also more pressing matters at hand before we face Real Madrid in Kiev on 26th May. Next year’s participation in the Champions League is still not secure and we have two games to ensure that we will be eating at Europe’s top table come September. Chelsea are snapping at our heels to get themselves into the competition and they were looking take advantage of any tired legs at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
Sticking with a familiar 3-5-2, Antonio Conte chose to go with Olivier Giroud up front again instead of the club record signing of Alvaro Morata. Tiemoue Bakayoko has had a poor first season since moving from Monaco for £40 million in the summer but he would start this game in central midfield alongside Cesc Fabregas and N’Golo Kante. Gary Cahill has been promised game-time ahead of the World Cup and Conte fulfilled that promise again here, as Cahill partnered Cesar Azpilicueta and Anotnio Rudiger at centre half.
Many anticipated a much weakened starting XI from Jurgen Klopp for this game but that wouldn’t be the case. Nathaniel Clyne was the only change to the back four, as Trent Alexander-Arnold moved into the centre of midfield to replace Jordan Henderson. James Milner and Gini Wijnaldum also retained their places in the side, as the regular front three of Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane started up front.
Liverpool had most of the ball in the opening stages of the game and it didn’t take long for us to fashion a chance. Alexander-Arnold played a lovely chip over the Rudiger’s head for Firmino to run onto. He let the ball bounce once before volleying towards goal, but Thibaut Courtois got his angles right and was able to parry away from danger. Of the front three Salah was proving the most ineffective, hardly touching the ball at all in the first half and, more disappointingly, throughout the game.
We continued to control the game from there and Sadio Mane in particular was beginning to pull some strings. He was our most dangerous player and had two dangerous efforts. First, he fired a powerful effort towards goal which Courtois was able to palm wide. Then he played a lovely one-two with Clyne but was only able to feebly poke into the welcoming arms of the Chelsea goalkeeper. Liverpool were having most of the ball but failing to make it count. Just after the half hour mark we were made to pay.
Chelsea had hardly ventured forward and had only had one real effort on target, that being Marcos Alonso’s long range effort which was safely gathered by Loris Karius. On thirty-two minutes Chelsea had the ball down their left through Moses. He turned on a sixpence, with Robertson not getting tight enough to him, and chipped it into the six-yard box. The beautiful ball sailed over the head of Virgil Van Dijk and was nodded into the far corner by Olivier Giroud, who rose above Dejan Lovren. Chelsea had an undeserved lead and Liverpool had been punished for not making the most of their possession.
Where Chelsea had at one point looked terrified of Liverpool, they were now much more confident. They began to come forward more and, not long after the goal, Fabregas flashed a snap ball across the face of goal which Bakayoko was too slow to get on the end of. Liverpool hardly threatened towards the end of the half and looked to play a more patient game. In truth, Jurgen Klopp will have been happy to hear the half time whistle. It will have give him a chance to shove a rocket up the collective backside of his players, who simply hadn’t turned up so far. Antonio Conte will have been pleased with his side. They were ahead undeservedly, but ahead nonetheless – taking into consideration their own Champions League ambitions, that was all that mattered to them.
When the sides came out after the break Chelsea began to sit a lot deeper. They were happy to contain Liverpool and were seemingly doing so with ease. Liverpool continued to play their slow game, trying to find holes in what was becoming an impenetrable Chelsea midfield and defensive line. The problem was that Liverpool were too predictable. After winning the ball we were always looking for Salah, who was being marked out of the game and having a bad day at the office. Sadio Mane looked out best bet to create something, yet still we looked for Salah whenever we could. It simply wasn’t working.
With Liverpool hardly creating anything and Chelsea not willing to create anything Jurgen Klopp was forced into changes. Dominic Solanke was brought on for Andy Robertson and Liverpool went to a similar shape as Chelsea. Solanke’s height and physicality seemed to be the threat he was supposed to bring but he still lacks the experience to make those attributes a threat in the Premier League. Solanke has the tools to be an effective option in the future, however he is desperate for some regular game-time and maybe a loan is something Jurgen Klopp should consider for the young forward next season.
With time running out and the Champions League final clearly on everyone’s minds, the manager brought on Alberto Moreno for James Milner. Liverpool still couldn’t find a way through though and it wasn’t long before the referee blew the whistle for full time. Chelsea are now just three points off ourselves with a game in hand but a much worse goal difference. We need only a point next week at Anfield against Brighton to ensure we will be in the Champions League again next season, while Chelsea will need us to lose and make up a fifteen-goal swing in their next two games to see overtake us.
Liverpool have been rightly praised this week for out exploits in Europe, but the harsh truth is that we have been under-performing in the Premier League for around a month now. We haven’t won a league game since we beat Bournemouth at home on 8th April. Since then, we have thrown away a two-goal lead against West Brom, failed to score against a terrible Stoke side, and now we have been beaten by a Chelsea team who were clearly scared of us for most of the game. A couple of years ago, during Klopp’s first season, Liverpool stumbled over the line because we had our eyes on the Europa League final against Sevilla. A similar ending to this season could have much more dire consequences.