Chelsea kept the race for the Champions League places open with a narrow but deserved victory, Olivier Giroud nodding the only goal of the game after 32 minutes.
Liverpool had a chance to clinch a top-four finish but looked nothing like the dynamic attacking outfit of recent weeks, Jurgen Klopp tasting defeat by Chelsea for the first time in six league meetings. Mohamed Salah, expected to impress against the club for whom he made 19 appearances between January 2014 and July 2016, was instead booked for a dive after a challenge from Gary Cahill and might have seen a second one for the same offence.
The Reds’superior goal difference means that they remain favourites to finish above Chelsea, but they cannot afford any slip-ups in their final game at home to Brighton next Sunday. But Chelsea also have Tottenham Hotspur in their sights after their North London neighbours’ unexpected defeat away to West Bromwich Albion yesterday.
True, with Tottenham facing Newcastle United and Leicester City at Wembley while Chelsea host Huddersfield and visit Newcastle, Antonio Conte’s men are still more likely to compete in the Europa League next season. But stranger things have happened.
There were surprises in both starting elevens. Alvaro Morata was missing from the Chelsea matchday squad with a mystery injury, and Tiemoue Bakayoko appeared in a central midfield trio, with Willian on the bench.
Jurgen Klopp appeared to have two right backs in his Liverpool starting line-up, although Trent Alexander-Arnold played in midfield with Nathaniel Clyne in a more orthodox full back position.
Any ideas that Liverpool might be relaxing ahead of the Champions League final were dispelled when Roberto Firmino outpaced Antonio Rudiger in the first minute but shot straight at Thibault Courtois. James Milner then brutally fouled Eden Hazard, somehow escaping a yellow card from Anthony Taylor. And Clyne was soon in on the act, stamping on Olivier Giroud’s ankle.
But Chelsea could also have done better at the other end when Bakayoko and Giroud got in each others’ way as they tried to profit from Victor Moses’ low cross from the right. And Marcos Alonso hit a fierce shot straight at Loris Karius after Bakayoko had dispossessed Alexander-Arnold.
But Chelsea had a reminder of Liverpool’s ability to strike quickly after 23 minutes when Milner found Sadio Mane 25 yards out and the Senegal striker unleashed a bullet of a shot that demanded a diving save low to his right from Courtois. Seven minutes later, put in by Andrew Robertson, he tried to curl the ball in from a similar distance, Courtois again equal to it.
But just as you thought a Liverpool opener was simply a matter of time, Chelsea went ahead. Moses created it, crossing unexpectedly with his left foot for Giroud to glance past Karius before rushing to the Chelsea bench to hug injured defender David Luiz. Liverpool’s old defensive frailty had been in evidence, neither Virgil van Dijk not Dejan Lovren marking the Chelsea striker, who outjumped Georginio Wijnaldum to get the header
Cesc Fabregas might have doubled the lead but shot across goal after a clever near-post run, and Moses did likewise early in the second half. Then Eden Hazard, quiet in the first half, dribbled down the left and drew a save from Karius from an almost impossible angle.
Klopp ended the Alexander-Arnold midfield experiment just short of the hour and sent on Jordan Henderson for Clyne, then took Robertson, his other full back off, in favour of former Chelsea youngster Dominic Solanke. But instead of a Liverpool equaliser, there was almost a late goal-of-the-season contender from Chelsea, Marcos Alonso volleying Moses’ deep cross back across Karius and just wide of the far post. Liverpool went for it late on but Solanke’s header from a cross by Mane went a yard too high and Van Dijk could only nod an even later effort gently into the hands of Courtois.
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