Chelsea and Liverpool tussle sets tone for title race as Manchester clubs watch on

The pair’s exhilarating draw certified their credentials in what will be a breathless title race

Melissa Reddy
Senior Football Correspondent
Monday 30 August 2021 16:17
<p>Chelsea and Liverpool players clash at Anfield</p>

Chelsea and Liverpool players clash at Anfield

Thomas Tuchel opted for “suffering” to describe large swathes of play against “a very strong Liverpool side”, where “the pressure was high, the energy was high” – and that was before Chelsea had to hit ultra-obstructive mode due to being a man down.

Jurgen Klopp took a breath and smiled before offering: “It’s rare to get this kind of enjoyment. The intensity the teams put in was really incredible.”

Both managers enjoyed Saturday evening’s encounter at Anfield for contrasting reasons, but there was one common conclusion: this was a heavyweight battle, these are certified title candidates.

Anyone else with ambitions of perching at the Premier League summit, the Manchester clubs specifically, will have been exhausted just watching the tussle, let alone plotting how either can be undone.

Chelsea’s diligence and structure without the ball after losing Reece James to a red card was immense. It emphasised their most significant transformation under Tuchel; morphing from an error-leading-to-goal accident to a defensive machine.

The team that allows the fewest efforts against them are now totally sure of themselves when not in possession, even when at a numerical disadvantage in a thunderous Anfield.

That Chelsea have been so good is no great shock: the champions of Europe have been superb since appointing a certified elite manager and are regularly talked up as favourites to be crowned England’s best.

Liverpool’s opening spell, before Kai Havertz’s brilliant looped header against the run of play, delivered a timely reminder that they remain a thoroughly formidable force.

It is ridiculous that a refresher is needed given that over the previous three seasons – including their horror injury-hit last campaign – the Merseysiders have posted the same points total as the mighty Manchester City.

Despite needing to field Rhys Williams and Nathaniel Philipps in the heart of defence, they ended 2020-21 third, on the heels of Manchester United, who are now billed to finish ahead of a full-strength Liverpool.

Yet there has been no strong evidence for that so far in this campaign. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men have recruited well – Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane are smart purchases and who knows what the Cristiano Ronaldo effect will bring – but they still have massive holes in midfield, on display again at Wolves.

United have very good components, but feel shy of what Liverpool, Chelsea and their city neighbours are capable of.

That is not to say there are no question marks over that trio. Klopp’s issue is depth of quality in attack, where beyond the front four there has been no evident trust in options. That problem will become pronounced when Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah depart for African Cup of Nations duty.

It is a risk not to replace the qualities Gini Wijnaldum offered in the centre of the park, chiefly being able to rely on him physically and tactically across an entire campaign.

City have smashed in 10 goals in their last two matches, so it may sound mad to suggest they still need a striker, but the club clearly share that view given the failed moves for Harry Kane and Cristiano. Norwich and Arsenal were amenable opponents but there are more rigorous assessments ahead.

City, despite the millions thrown at the position, do not have an elite left-back and shockingly continued playing Benjamin Mendy there while he was on bail under investigation for sexual offences.

Chelsea, squad-wise, look the most complete of the lot. They are tactically versatile and bought a banker in Romelu Lukaku. But we do not know if they have the capacity to hit a 90-plus point season and how they weather truly stormy periods under Tuchel.

City and Liverpool have redefined what it takes to win the Premier League and too much stock has been placed in the latter’s stutter last time out after a miserable run of luck.

Over the past few months, Chelsea have shaped up as the only side who can seriously break into that duopoly and the draw at Anfield was a window into how breathless the title race could be.

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