Chelsea jumped to 3rd in the table and sent Liverpool crashing from 1st to 5th in the space of three days, highlighting just how tight things currently are in the top eight at this midway point in the season.
Mourinho lined Chelsea up in their usual 4-2-3-1, but interestingly he went with David Luiz alongside Lampard in midfield and dropped Jon Obi Mikel to the bench. Samuel Eto’o started as the lone striker, while the attacking midfield three of Hazard, Oscar and Willian brought all you would expect with a highly technical, skilful and intense performance.
The implications of switching Mikel with Luiz are very much to do with the type of game this was going to be. With Liverpool being a side capable of dominant spells, Mourinho will have wanted brave passes, and a bit of urgency with counter-attacking opportunities. This is something you would probably have to trade-off with Mikel in there. In doing this Chelsea could still exercise an element of control even in the periods when they didn’t have possession.
Brendan Rodgers continued as expected with his preferred 4-3-3 formation. However he also made one significant change, with Daniel Agger finally returning to the side as captain, but at left back. He replaced, Aly Cissokho, who had replaced Jon Flanagan last week. So as Liverpool’s third left back in a week, this is clear evidence of a problem position that has been developing with Jose Enrique still injured. Agger has previous experience at left back, however will still be dissatisfied at not being a first choice for Rodgers.
It was a frantic first half, Liverpool taking the lead with Martin Skrtel prodding home from close range, however Chelsea fought back immediately. They took hold of the game and push forwards. David Luiz despite playing slightly deeper than Lampard, was key in much of the attacking play. He sent probing passes both on the ground and lofted high into good areas (he led the outfield players in long balls, attempting 10) and was extremely direct from his deep position.
Frank Lampard had to be withdrawn at half-time due to injury, which meant the introduction of Mikel for Chelsea alongside Luiz. This maintained the physicality of their midfield and proved to be conducive to the hot atmosphere which was building as the game went on. It dragged Liverpool into a game they didn’t particularly want, scrapping and arguing desperately for decisions. All Chelsea had to ensure was that Liverpool could play where there was no threat to the space, and bully them when there was danger.
This is not to say Chelsea lacked skill or finesse, they were the better footballing side on the day, despite Liverpool threatening sporadically. An excellent central defensive performance from John Terry and Gary Cahill prevented Liverpool from getting good service into Suarez, and when he did receive it was in controllable zones.
The game was littered with good chances for more goals from both teams, while both were also denied penalties. With Sakho hitting the crossbar and Joe Allen forcing a good save from Cech, the game could have easily swung back in the Reds favour. Simon Mignolet however, pulled of some fantastic close range saves and stopped a long range effort from Lampard to keep Liverpool alive. The Belgian will feel he could have done better with Samuel Eto’o’s effort which crept in at the far post, and similarly to Negredo’s Boxing Day strike, his palm to it wasn’t quite strong enough.
Tactically, both managers were forced into awkward reshuffles at different stages in this game. Along with Lampard’s injury, Ivanovic also had to withdraw early, which meant Azpilicueta switching to right back in his place, while Ashley Cole came on at left back. Brendan Rodgers introduced academy prospect Brad Smith for the injured Joe Allen after an hour – this meant shifting to a 4-2-3-1 with Coutinho playing as the number 10. Glen Johnson was then withdrawn, which saw young Raheem Sterling trusted with the right back responsibilities, a great sign of Rodgers faith in his tactical maturity. Finally Mamadou Sakho pulled up late on with a hamstring to compound Rodgers misery.
Statistically, Chelsea shaded it in most areas, which accurately reflects the balance of the game. Liverpool’s poor return of 289 accurate passes with their 47.9% possession shows just how disruptive Chelsea showed themselves to be – they managed a slightly better 325 accurate passes, and both teams finished on 77% accuracy.
There was very little fluidity in the final third, with Chelsea only managing 59% accuracy in this area, while Liverpool only had 62%. This is a great indicator of how tight both teams were defending when the ball was played through. Suarez could barely breathe with very little space available each time he received it from the midfield. The result of this was only 7 open play chances for Chelsea and 4 for Liverpool despite a very exciting game.
There was a lot of controversy throughout the game and in the interviews which followed it. Players scrapped, argued and fought with each other, some even thought they would exchange shirts at half-time (?!). Rodgers was very restrained in hinting that Howard Webb had a very bad game in his opinion, while Mourinho also had a dig at Suarez.
In the end it was a fair result, with Chelsea establishing themselves as genuine contenders for the title, assuming they have a successful transfer window to compete with City’s firepower. Rodgers finds himself in an almost must-win situation against Hull City at Anfield on New Year’s Day if Liverpool are to maintain their pressure on the top 4. Newcastle and Manchester United now find themselves within 2 points of the Reds as the race heats up.