Matches against Liverpool always hold special importance for Chelsea fans, but it’s been a long time since a game between the two sides has been as pulsating, or anywhere close to as entertaining as last night’s League Cup semi-final. Across the duration of both legs – this was simply a great cup tie. Probably just short of a classic – but still a riveting contest between two excellent teams, showing full respect for, if not the competition necessarily, then the nature of the occasion; the rivalry of the two sides might have faded in intensity on the field these past few years but has remained fierce in the minds of the supporters. Each fan base feels not only a desire, but a desperation to be successful – a sentiment cleared shared by the players last night.
I think this was my favourite Chelsea game of the season so far. With the result in the balance until the end, for two hours the game remained open, occasionally on the verge of frantic and filled with moments of individual quality and also sloppiness which made for a relentlessly compelling spectacle. I thought the two teams showed the very best of themselves. Liverpool’s high energy, attack minded approach helped them to create chances until the end, with the skill and creativity of makeshift strike partnership Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho constantly threatening the Chelsea backline. Both young forwards played brilliantly. Meanwhile, we showed all of the qualities we’ve come to expect from Chelsea in big matches towards the ‘business-end’ of the season. We were solid, uncompromising, refusing to shirk a single individual battle and calling on every ounce of talent needed to get the job done. League Cup semi-final victories are never likely, nor should they be considered a particularly outstanding achievement for this club, but still, last night’s was a performance to be very proud of.
Even the game’s key moment was perfectly typical of a great Chelsea win, as Branislav Ivanovic powerfully headed in Willian’s cross from close range in the 95th minute. As has been pointed out several times, a lot of what has changed about the side these past couple years hasn’t always been to the benefit of the Serb and his style of playing. Many feel Ivanovic is now positioned too high to be defensively solid. Some feel the level of our forward play has become too technical, or too intricate for him to play a consistent part. But when style goes out the window and a contest boils down to a matter of who wants it more, Ivanovic invariably enters into his element and steps up where needed.
The characteristics of this Chelsea side which have inspired so much pride from the fans, have for a long time been embodied by the big defender perhaps as consistently as they have been by anyone else at the club. Mourinho’s revelation that the player’s boot was filled with blood from a cut he picked up earlier in the game, was hardly a shocking piece of news. As John Terry once said, the Serb is ‘symbol of the dedication’ with which this team goes in pursuit of success. He isn’t the most gifted or agile or technical but he has as much heart as anyone and to his credit, he must surely be one of the world’s greatest offensive headers of the ball. Last night’s winner was the 28th of his Chelsea career (only four less than the captain himself has managed in that time).
Unfortunately it isn’t Ivanovic in all the papers this morning however. Despite having had what I thought was one of his best games for the club, it’s Diego Costa who filled the back pages and for largely negative reasons. It’s taken absolutely no time at all for the Chelsea fan base to fall in love with the Spaniard. His hold up play is still improving but from day one he has fought and scratched and clawed at every opportunity to gain an upper-hand; I think he’d pick a fight with the goalpost if he thought it would win his team an advantage. Whatever the situation he is willing to carry the team and lead from the front. And though there is no excuse for when combativeness turns into maliciousness on the field of sport, as his apparent willingness to cross the line in the midst of a confrontation will surely catch up with him eventually (a likely and deserved retrospective ban looms at this moment), fans seem happy, for now, to take on the risk that the player will at some point land himself in trouble. They understand it’s an immutable part of his character and a key part of what makes him such an entertaining as well as an effective front man for this side.
Another player who enjoyed what was probably his finest display in a blue shirt was Kurt Zouma, who retained his place over Gary Cahill from the weekend. It wasn’t a flawless display by any means and clearly it’ll take some time before he can be a trusted first team regular. But equally, it seems equally clear that he has everything to be one of the world’s best defensive players. Last night he showed on top of the obvious athleticism that he has the temperament, the character and the boldness to make big tackles that young player’s need to break into the first team of a top side. Gary Cahill’s partnership with Terry is well established but Zouma in some ways might be a more natural fit next to the captain, as the speed and aggressiveness of the youngster balances with his more cautious and thoughtful game nicely. Long term, a year or two next to Terry is surely the best thing for the Frenchman’s development too.
Elsewhere, Willian was excellent, sprinting to cover ground relentlessly for the whole two hours. Hazard shone in parts with his trademark graceful dynamism from the left wing, and though Cesc’s substitution seemed a blow at the time, Ramires came on to perform an excellent job too; tracking runs and making clever forward breaks, reminiscent of his best form for the club under Roberto Di Matteo in 2012.
The Man of the Match award though was rightly awarded however to Thibaut Courtois, the goalkeeper who was the outstanding and most decisive player over the course of the two legs. Brendan Rodgers bemoaned in his interview after the game how our goalkeeper won us the tie, with a strange bitterness that suggested the quality of a goalkeeper should be assessed separately from the quality of his team. What impressed me the most though about the Belgian’s contributions over the tie wasn’t just the quality and breadth of his skill set, though he’s proved himself to be the most dominant keeper aerially, the fastest and sharpest off his line as well the best shot-stopper in the league, but the character to, at 22, produce such fantastic saves in big moments, shows a level of class that convinces me he will be a key player and a leader at the club for a very long time.
The result of the second semi-final isn’t necessarily a given, however, clearly Tottenham Hotspur are the big favourites and though Sheffield Utd represent much easier opposition, with two results in particular to avenge, we have reason to wish to meet Mauricio Pochettino’s side on the 1st March. It was against Spurs that we lost our last appearance the League Cup final in 2008 – which was also our one and only defeat in a final at the New Wembley Stadium. After the horrific loss to them on New Year’s Day also, a cup final win at their expense would be particularly satisfying. The way in which they instantly retreated to their mediocre form after defeating us offers me hope as well. On the off-chance that they don’t score every chance they have and we don’t play awfully, I think we should be big favourites. And then hopefully, just like his first, Mourinho’s third League Cup will instigate another era of relentless silverware and success.