Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Reds outclass Blues but tie still in the balance

Liverpool’s League Cup semi-final with Chelsea remains finely poised after a first leg at Anfield that was encouraging and frustrating in equal measure. It was encouraging because Liverpool outclassed the best team in the country by some distance. It was also frustrating, however, because the Reds couldn’t find the winner their display deserved, leaving the Blues slight favourites heading into the second leg at Stamford Bridge next Tuesday evening.

Right from the off, the Reds were the better team, and only a questionable refereeing decision- one of many- allowed Eden Hazard to give the visitors the lead from the spot midway through the first period. The flow of the game didn’t change, though, and the Merseysiders eventually got the equaliser they deserved through a wonderful strike from Raheem Sterling on the hour mark.

The hosts continued to push and create numerous chances, the best of which Gerrard agonisingly placed against the post, but the League leaders somehow managed to hold on for a draw they scarcely deserved.

Steven Gerrard came in for Fabio Borini in the one change that Brendan Rodgers made to the team that beat Aston Villa 2-0 on the weekend. Playing in a forward three with Sterling and Coutinho, Gerrard was instructed to press Chelsea high and prevent them playing out from the back, and that’s precisely what the captain did, troubling Thibaut Courtois, who was forced to shank a clearance into the stand five minutes in as Gerrard closed him down following a poor back pass from Terry.

Across the pitch, Liverpool played with an urgency and tempo that troubled Chelsea. As well as dominating possession, the Reds closed down rapidly and won the ball back high up the pitch when they lost it, trapping the visitors in their own half. Of course, the Blues were only too happy to oblige and park the bus, particularly after they took the lead from the penalty spot on 18 minutes.

Only a minute after Gerrard had rolled back the years with a stunning strike from range that called Courtois into action, Can clumsily challenged Hazard in the area, giving referee Martin Atkinson an excuse to point to the penalty spot. It was a little harsh and Hazard certainly played for it, but to be honest it was probably one of few correct decisions that the officials made last night. Predictably, the Belgian playmaker planted the penalty in the bottom corner as Mignolet dove in the opposite direction.

Hazard scored from Chelsea's only shot on target 
To try and atone for his error, Can embarked on a remarkable run out of defence and all the way to the edge of Chelsea’s area on the half hour mark, but his pass was just awry when he attempted to pick out Sterling. It was an example of the attacking threat that Can adds to an otherwise  solid but uncreative back three, although he also looked vulnerable defensively whenever Hazard ran at him.

Collectively, Liverpool’s backline appeared exposed when Chelsea counter-attacked from a corner on 33 minutes, as Fabregas was given the freedom of Merseyside to attack Moreno with a teammate. Thankfully, the Spaniard did well to stall the Blues’ attack and his teammates bust a gut to get back and help him out. As a result, the danger passed as Hazard eventually lost the ball when he should have at least tested Mignolet.

On the stroke of half time another penalty decision didn’t go Liverpool’s way, as their vociferous complaints about Costa handling while grounded frustratingly fell on deaf ears. It was a poor decision by Atkinson, who was in a good position to clearly see Costa both handle the ball and move his hand in the direction of the ball, indicating intent and not just ball-to-hand.

In the second half, Liverpool adopted much the same approach. Mignolet remained in large part a spectator, being called upon to rush out of goal to clear when Costa was clean through 20 seconds after the restart but otherwise uninvolved, as Chelsea were content to sit back and soak up the waves of Liverpool pressure.

Until Sterling scored on the hour mark, it looked like Mourinho’s men might be able to frustrate the Reds in a manner similar to last season when they effectively ended their title challenge. Thankfully, the number 31, firing on all cylinders following a mid-winter break in Jamaica, produced a piece of magic to level.

He dropped into the hole to receive a pass from the equally excellent Henderson and then accelerated past the helpless Cahill before sending a brilliant low shot into the corner of the net with his weaker left foot. It was a goal of pure class from Sterling, who was absolutely brilliant alongside Philippe Coutinho last night.

Sterling celebrates his equaliser
That front three continued to terrorise Chelsea’s defence, Gerrard curling against the post and Coutinho firing a shot goalwards low and true that Courtois did well to push away. Lallana immediately posed a threat after replacing Gerrard with 20 minutes remaining, almost linking up with Sterling in the penalty area, before forcing Courtois into an excellent save with a cracking effort from the edge of the box.

Henderson and Sterling also called Courtois into action in quick succession, while the keeper was lucky to get away with handling outside the area and relieved to see Coutinho shoot high into the Kop from an improbable range and angle, as Liverpool kept searching for the goal that would have put them in the driving seat heading into the second leg at Stamford Bridge.

Frustratingly, it just wasn’t to be. Nonetheless, there are still plenty of positives to take from this match and every reason to be optimistic ahead of the second leg. Liverpool dominated and outperformed Chelsea, restricting them to one shot on target from the penalty spot and having 19 attempts themselves. All of this came against a team five points clear at the top of the table and brimming with confidence following a 5-0 victory over Swansea only three days previously.

The only thing that Liverpool lacked was a clinical striker. Had Sturridge been playing, the Reds could have obtained an almost unassailable lead and effectively ended the tie as a contest after the first leg. As it is, they travel to Stamford Bridge with the tie still in balance. Although it will undoubtedly be a different game in London as Chelsea will be more willing to come out and play, if Liverpool can reproduce this display then there is no reason why they cannot secure a place at Wembley.


No comments:

Post a Comment