It was a goal scored in the blink of an eye: a turn, a run and a shot that told you all you needed to know about the big-match temperament of Raheem Sterling.
This Capital One Cup semi-final tie goes to Stamford Bridge on Tuesday nicely poised, and with a marginal advantage to Chelsea who play the second leg at home, but it would have been so much less promising for Brendan Rodgers’ side without a brilliant second half equaliser from Sterling. At 20 years old he has met every challenge presented so far head on and now finds himself approaching the big games when finals and trophies are at stake.
Liverpool 1 Chelsea 1 player ratings
Liverpool 1 Chelsea 1 player ratings
1/22 Simon Mignolet
Could do little with Hazard’s spot-kick but quick off line to halt Costa in opening seconds of second period. Less busy of the Belgian keepers. 6/10
2/22 Emre Can
Played again in unorthodox position and gave Hazard opportunity to tumble and earn penalty. Stuck to task well thereafter and got forward. 6
3/22 Martin Skrtel
Led and cajoled his centre-back partners through a testing night and made a crucial challenge on Costa in the closing minutes to preserve draw for hosts.6
4/22 Mamadou Sakho
Relished muscular battle with Costa and rightly allowed to play on after Spanish-Brazilian went down easily outside area. Growing into the team.6
5/22 Lazar Markovic
Collapsed to ground in heap to earn Luis booking. Could not be faulted for lack of effort or application – but had little overall impact on proceedings.6
6/22 Jordan Henderson
Drove forward when chances arose and presented Chelsea with problems with his passing. Made Courtois work with strong shot from 20 yards.7
Remained back to allow Gerrard and Henderson to press on. Almost played Sterling through before the interval. Carded for bringing down Hazard.6
8/22 Alberto Moreno
Stationed further forward and never stopped running all night. Saw cross blocked by Willian. Fouled by Mikel but offered Reds help at both ends.6
9/22 Steven Gerrard
Tested Courtois with swerving effort and struck post after break before being replaced in forceful showing. Booked for chopping down Hazard.7
10/22 Philippe Coutinho
Fine ball through to Sterling was intercepted by Cahill and was main attacking threat behind Sterling as Reds sought to earn first-leg advantage.7
11/22 Raheem Sterling
So that’s what a break in Jamaica can do... Darted around but struggled to make an impact before driving through heart of Chelsea’s back line to level.8
12/22 Thibaut Courtois
Returned to side for first time since defeat at Spurs. Fine tip over from Gerrard and also Coutinho and Lallana. Strong handling and left exposed for Sterling goal.8
13/22 Branislav Ivanovic
Has rivalled Fabregas for assists in recent games and got forward well but was found lacking in defence. Often left others to make up ground for him.5
14/22 Gary Cahill
Struggled for form in recent weeks but made vital interception to stop Coutinho’s through ball. Failed to halt Sterling for equaliser.6
15/22 John Terry
Kept a lot busier than Saturday’s cakewalk of a match at Swansea. Troubled by trickery of a rested Sterling but kept focus as hosts turned up heat.6
16/22 Filipe Luis
Harshly censured after Markovic made most of his flailing arm. Shot over from outside area and was another to struggle with Reds’ intensity after half-time.6
17/22 John Obi Mikel
Nigerian brought back into team to allow Fabregas to move forward but does not offer same presence as the Spaniard. Lacking in composure. 6
18/22 Nemanja Matic
Kept ball flowing as Chelsea relied on counter-attack for their chances. Lost Sterling for the goal but his physicality added to an out-of-sorts defence.6
Pacy Brazilian was left to bail out Ivanovic on more than one occasion and his work rate put a few of his colleagues to shame. Taken off near the end.7
20/22 Cesc Fabregas
Deployed further forward in the hole behind Costa and linked up to great effect with Hazard in opening exchanges. As with rest of team, wilted after interval.6
21/22 Eden Hazard
Intelligent in possession but often a marked man. Enjoyed more spot-kick success than countryman Mirallas had in same city the previous night.7
22/22 Diego Costa
Not his best night. Fortunate to escape handball on stroke of half-time. Went close immediately after break but denied by rapidity of Mignolet.6
The young Englishman was the outstanding player on a night when Liverpool had to fight their way back into a match that they could quite easily have allowed to slip away after Eden Hazard’s 19th-minute penalty. There were fine performances from Jordan Henderson and Martin Skrtel, and the occasional burst from Philippe Coutinho, but it was Sterling to whom the eye was drawn to again and again.
In the land of the giants – John Terry, Gary Cahill, Nemanja Matic and Thibaut Courtois – it was the little chap in Liverpool’s No 31 shirt who made the best chances for Liverpool, who had 20 attempts on goal to Chelsea’s two. The greatest compliment you could give Sterling was that with Hazard threatening to decide the game it was the Englishman who wrenched it back for his team.
As Rodgers later said, the break in Jamaica has refreshed Sterling and Liverpool, now unbeaten in nine games go to Stamford Bridge with at least the chance of an upset. Away goals will count only after extra-time is played. Sterling will be crucial. He has run through this Chelsea defence once already and it looks like he will have to do it again for Liverpool to make the final.
Rodgers hinted afterwards that Daniel Sturridge could also be back in a week’s time but there have been too many false dawns where his fitness is concerned for anyone to be sure. The Liverpool manager went on the front foot after the match, proclaiming his team could win at Stamford Bridge and bemoaning the decisions that went against Liverpool.
It is true that there was a case for a penalty against Diego Costa for a first half handball, and that in the 77th-minute Thibaut Courtois may well have handled outside the area. For all Liverpool’s best moments, Rodgers knows that Chelsea remain a formidable opponent capable of breaking the hearts of their opposition in an instant.
Impressive in the first half they slipped a little after the break and one wonders if Mourinho’s untouchables are starting to find the pace of the season a little unrelenting. Their outstanding player was Courtois while Cahill and Matic found their shortcomings exposed in a way that was rare at the start of the season.
A goal down at half-time Liverpool had not had a bad first half, even if there was a bit too much of what Mourinho might have called “sterile possession” and not enough of the chances that might test Courtois. Liverpool looked at their best when Sterling dragged Cahill into the wide areas or Lazar Markovic got at them down the right side.
There were glimpses from Coutinho in the early stages of the half, and more than once he had quicker feet than John Obi Mikel, the second change after Courtois from the team that beat Swansea 5-0 at the weekend. Mikel is brought in when Mourinho wants to reinforce the protection of his back four, and in this case he moved Cesc Fabregas forward to the No 10 role and dropped Oscar to the bench.
For all the fleet-footedness of Sterling, Markovic and Coutinho in the first half, not to mention 63 per cent possession, the best attempt on goal from Liverpool before the break was a sweetly struck, dipping Steven Gerrard shot that Courtois pushed one-handed over the bar.
The request from Mourinho that the Chelsea support lay off that song about the Liverpool captain was ignored – naturally - and there might even have been a brief shake of the head from the away team’s manager when it first began. Gerrard, starting out on the right came in and out the game in the first half which was as good as Mourinho could have hoped for.
On the counter-attack, Chelsea always looked extremely dangerous – especially with Liverpool’s back three square on and Fabregas looking to drop the ball over the top for Hazard to run onto. Their goal began with a darting run from Fabregas down the left to the byline that Emre Can should have stopped and, failing to do so, he chased the pass to the feet of Hazard and made the challenge that cost his side a penalty.
It only takes the slightest misjudgement when challenging Hazard to turn a routine tackle into a catastrophe. So it was with Can, who took enough of the winger’s leg to give referee Martin Atkinson an easy decision. From the penalty spot it seemed like Hazard only needed a twitch of the eyebrows for Simon Mignolet to fling himself to the wrong corner.
A goal down, Liverpool kept their patience but created precious few chances up to the break. There were cheap bookings for Gerrard and Lucas Leiva and then another for Filipe Luis to even things up. The ball struck the wrist of Costa while he was grounded in his own area. A difficult decision at the best of times but Atkinson was never going to try to call it through a thicket of players that gave him no view of it whatsoever.
It changed after half-time and the confidence with which Chelsea had corralled and controlled the possession that Liverpool enjoyed seemed to slacken. Rodgers’ team started to get at them and when the equaliser arrived just before the hour it was well-deserved.
Sterling took the goal brilliantly: a ball down the middle from Henderson, a turn and acceleration from his English team-mate and a great finish. Watching again it was evident that even as the ball came to Sterling in the area, Matic was nowhere near close enough. Sterling sprang away from him in a few steps, caught Cahill flat-footed and darted left, shooting low past Courtois.
Back level, Liverpool had greater confidence and Coutinho made a return to the action. It was the Brazilian who darted down the left and cut the ball back for Gerrard whose left-foot shot Courtois did not even try to save. It clipped the outside of the Chelsea post and went behind.
The Liverpool captain went off after 70 minutes, replaced by Adam Lallana and Rodgers’ team looked the stronger in the closing stages. Sterling’s knockdown for Lallana on 79 minutes gave the scope for a shot that was brilliantly saved by Courtois. It was his wrist that may have made contact with the ball outside the box but it was impossible for Atkinson to see definitively. It was Chelsea hanging on come the end.
Liverpool (3-4-3): Mignolet; Can, Skrtel, Sakho; Markovic, Lucas, Henderson, Moreno; Gerrard Sterling, Coutinho.
Subs: Lallana/Gerrard 70
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Courtois; Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Filipe Luis; Matic, Mikel; Hazard, Fabregas, Willian; Costa.
Subs: Azpilicueta/Willian 88
Referee: M Atkinson.
Man of the match: Sterling
Booked: Liverpool Gerrard, Lucas Chelsea Luis, MikelReuse content