At the point of kick off yesterday afternoon, things didn’t look too promising for Chelsea. The home fans had finished belting out ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ as loudly as I’ve ever heard, whilst Jose Mourinho had made good on his promise to field a weakened team, with Gary Cahill, David Luiz, Oscar and Willian all left out of the starting XI. The momentum, as they say, was well and truly with Liverpool; the stage seemed set for them to wrap up their first ever Premier League title and their first championship win since 1990.
What followed was largely predictable in terms of structure and pace, with Chelsea’s midfield three positioned as deep and narrow as they were against Atletico in mid-week, allowing no space in between the lines and constantly forcing Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling out wide. What wasn’t so predictable was just quite how effective Chelsea’s set up would be in stifling their attack, forcing what has been for months now, the most potent and creative forward line in the country, into unforced errors and shots from long range.
Ultimately, I think it has to be conceded; Jose Mourinho got his team selection absolutely right and in more ways than one. Not only was resting certain key players so obviously the sensible decision, but it allowed him to create an almost false sense of disinterest, leading to a situation where the players he did select found themselves perfectly set up to achieve the upset – with effectively nothing to lose and everything to gain just by playing their regular games in their favoured positions.
As has been the case with all of our best wins this season, the performance of the collective far outshone any individual contribution, but, it also has to be said, that within the collective, Nemanja Matic was once again outstanding, breaking up play and invariably keeping possession despite having next to no room to work with. The back five were also fantastic, with Ivanovic, Azpilicueta and Cole all looking in solid in the positions they’ll have to play on Wednesday and with Mark Schwarzer dealing with everything expertly – he didn’t look a day over 37. Special plaudits are also in order for 20 year old Tomas Kalas who for the duration of the game looked every bit as imperious as his far more experienced Serb centre half partner. The young defender dealt confidently with everything that was asked of him, showing all of the class and composure a genuine prospective Chelsea defender would need. It seems that a long term future at the club is a real possibility for Kalas, it’ll be interesting to see whether it is he, or major January signing Kurt Zouma who will first get the opportunity of an extended run in the XI.
Meanwhile, in attack, I thought Demba Ba almost played like a caricature of himself – holding the ball up with brutal physicality and athleticism and finishing skilfully when he got his chance at the end of the first half. But the big forward was also horribly clumsy and wasteful in possession. He might have scored some big goals for Chelsea and may yet have some left in him, he is however, demonstrably well short of the standard required in terms of technical ability, to be a striker for a top Premier League team. That said, of all the current players in the Chelsea team, he’s the one you’d want on the ball in the situation he found himself at the end of the first half, with Steven Gerrard’s miscontrol and slip leaving the Senegalese clean through on goal. The incident was remarkably similar to the Liverpool captain’s back pass gaffe which led to Didier Drogba scoring in a 2-0 win at Anfield en route to our 2010 league win. Poor old Gerrard – he never has much luck.
In the end, all of the usual ‘anti-football’ and ‘bus parking’ gibes are of course inevitable. Only the most euphuistic observer could deny however, that this was anything other than a very difficult job particularly well done. The winning goal might have been against the ‘run of play’ but it was always on the cards, as writer Iain McIntosh tweeted at the time, it ‘was on the cards in letters painted eight foot high’. Aside from our 1-0 defeat of Man City in February, it’s difficult to remember an occasion where a game plan has worked to such levels of perfection. Mourinho has been doing his image no favours these past few weeks, coming across increasingly bitter and neurotic in his public appearances, as he faces the reality of most likely ending the season without a major trophy for the second year running.
But it was great to see him back in his element yesterday, soaking up the atmosphere, masterminding yet another crucial win against Top 4 opposition. This was, in many ways, the quintessential Mourinho victory – maintaining a water tight defence and punishing any mistakes made. I just wish he’d find a way to embrace the emotional/confrontational side of his character without having to resort to the petty and bitter rants which do himself and his team absolutely no favours. When you’re capable of orchestrating victories as decisive as yesterdays in such restrictive circumstances, sometimes it must surely be better to just let your talent speak for itself.
Finally, I thought it was a fitting end to proceedings yesterday for Brendan Rodgers to come out in his post match interview and lament Chelsea’s defensive tactics and time wasting, and implicitly criticise Mourinho for the simplicity of his coaching methods. When these comments are all over the back pages tomorrow, rather than pieces on how Liverpool potentially managed to blow their best chance of league success in almost a quarter of a century, no doubt Jose Mourinho will be sitting somewhere reading these quotes and thinking, ‘haha, the boy learned well’.