There wasn’t a whole evidence before kick-off on Tuesday night that Liverpool would be much of a match for a Chelsea across the two legs of this contest. Their form might have improved somewhat following that 3-0 defeat at Old Trafford but they remain on paper a vastly inferior side to the league-leaders (and favourites) in virtually every respect. However, with the raucous home crowd behind them, their best players rested and in-form and with Chelsea some considerable distance from their best, Brendan Rodgers’ side did in the end did actually manage to make a game of it! To be honest, Liverpool were comfortably the better side in what was a gripping cup-tie. The performance will rightly encourage them they have a chance of progressing, but still, the 1-1 draw surely favours Chelsea ahead the return leg next week.
The tactical contest was an interesting one. The strengths and weaknesses of each side’s formation seemed obvious. With Liverpool’s wing backs playing so high up as to keep our full backs permanently occupied, their forward three of Gerrard, Coutinho and Sterling could all stay central and look for room in between the lines, which Sterling in particular took constant advantage of. Mourinho foresaw this issue however and selected Mikel Obi alongside Matic, which helped to control the situation; though Liverpool had many periods of sustained possession, they were unable to create very many meaningful chances.
But when it came to exploiting Liverpool’s weaknesses, we were frankly poor throughout. With their wing-backs so high, there were chances all the time to get the ball past Lucas and Henderson in midfield and create a situation where Fabregas, Hazard and Costa were three on three with the Liverpool backline. Just like the manager bemoaned however, unlike against Swansea last weekend, the passing and the movement in attack was shoddy and we allowed Liverpool to keep the pressure on, by virtue of our inability to convert turnovers into dangerous attacking moves.
I still think Liverpool’s performance was slightly over-hyped. Mourinho’s suggestion that they didn’t deserve to lose was taken to be tongue in cheek, but I thought it was a fair verdict. For all the good positions they found themselves in, aside from Sterling’s excellently taken goal, Gerrard’s shot which hit the post and Lallana’s late effort, spectacularly saved by Courtois, were the only other decent attempts which they could manufacture. (The claim against Costa for handball in the first half was utterly ridiculous). It’s doubtful Liverpool will find it as easy in the second leg to create chances; they better hope they can be more proficient next week because Chelsea surely will be.
For many supporters, Mourinho didn’t cover himself in glory in his post-match reaction, when he, for the second time this season, seemed to call into question the aptitude of the Chelsea home support, suggesting that a reasonable target would be to achieve just ‘a quarter’ of the atmosphere Liverpool fans generated at Anfield on Tuesday. Personally, these comments don’t bother me in the slightest. For whatever the reason he feels the need to make them, I remain in a minority who thinks that the passion of a fan base and the volume of a home support are not, and never should be considered to be the same thing. I don’t think for a moment that Mourinho believes Chelsea fans are less passionate about beating Liverpool than they are about beating us either. Still, being asked to try to emulate a crowd that laughs at its own songs about the Elephant Man… I can see why some of our number might be a tad offended.
One of the most fascinating aspects of following a top football club is how, whenever you reach the latter stages of a knockout competition, or whenever you start to feel that a trophy is within reach, no matter how much success you enjoy, all of the context surrounding the nature of the competition just seems to dissolve. All regular ways of thinking are abandoned. It doesn’t matter if next week’s second leg is merely for a place in the League Cup final; it doesn’t matter if it is the least of our priorities, or even that it’s the least of our priorities by a considerably long way. It’s a game against a fierce rival for a date at Wembley. Victory isn’t just desirable – it’s essential.
Despite their derisible decline these last few years from the always impressive, consistent, disciplined team of the Rafael Benitez era, cup ties against Liverpool still retain that almost incomparable sense of occasion, and it isn’t difficult to see why. Cup ties against Liverpool have framed our rise to the top of European football. Over the last ten years, all of the highs and lows of being a Chelsea fan can largely be seen through a history of results against the Merseyside club.
Brendan Rodgers might not be as much of a foe as Benitez. The Northern Irishman only ever really manages to inspire annoyance, as opposed to the genuine dislike to which Rafa was subjected, and for which not even winning us a European trophy could relieve him. Rodgers, in contrast, who has all of the self-regard and petulance of Mourinho but not half of the talent and charisma, is rather easier to just ignore. Similarly, the modern day Liverpool of Henderson, Skrtel, Sterling and Coutinho, isn’t a patch on the side of Mascherano, Alonso, Carragher and Torres. Steven Gerrard no longer matches up to John Terry in quite the same way either. But nonetheless, games between the sides still carry such an immense weight of importance. The captain might be the only player likely to start next week with the memory of those Champions League semi-final defeats of ‘05 and ’07, but every member of this squad should feel like they belong to and represent an institution and a fan base that has been deprived of too much glory this past decade as a result of matches against Liverpool. I’m sure that no Chelsea fan feels it’s possible to attain too much revenge for those (and other) defeats. It’s time this new generation took its first major steps in beginning to rectify them.
Something tells me the Stamford Bridge atmosphere should be the least of Mourinho’s concerns.