Cartoon villain is the role that Jose Mourinho specialises in best and this afternoon he was the man who cancelled Christmas at Anfield, the crusher of Liverpudlian dreams and a whole lot more besides. He has a cunning plan for every occasion and the only criteria he brings to bear is whether it will help him win the game.
Quite simply, on this occasion Liverpool found themselves Mourinho-ed. His gameplan was launched in the aftermath of the draw with Atletico Madrid on Tuesday when Mourinho began his narrative of fielding a weakened team and it culminated in this classic counter-attacking victory, which broke Liverpool hearts for its opportunism and its sheer bloody-mindedness.
Brendan Rodgers gave his verdict on the performance, as “like having two buses parked” in front of the Chelsea goal, a variation on the phrase that Mourinho introduced to English football in his first spell at Chelsea. The Liverpool manager said that he would never pick a team to play in that way with the clear inference that he considered it beneath him, although the thought did occur that it tends to be the pragmatists rather than the purists who have the better medal collections.
Whether you like it or not, there is something magnificent in these Chelsea performances, even if it can be an acquired taste, but it comes down to the basics: determination, organisation and an utter devotion to avoiding mistakes. One would not wish to watch it every week for the rest of one’s life but to see the millionaires under Mourinho’s command working like crazy to carry out his demands to the letter is to get a taste of the power of this coach.
Ah, mistakes - a cruel way to decide such a big match, as even Mourinho himself later conceded. In injury-time at the end of the first half, Steven Gerrard allowed the ball to roll under his foot and then slipped as he tried to retrieve it, permitting Demba Ba to run on goal where his finish was a lot more calculated than much of his play over the afternoon.
For Gerrard it was more painful than the moment his ill-advised back-pass found Didier Drogba for a goal at Anfield four years ago because then it was only Manchester United whom Chelsea were competing with for the league title. That his mistake was such an integral part of a defeat that could potentially deny him the only league championship of his life is entirely in keeping with the comic book stories of triumph and despair that have characterised his career.
The league is not Liverpool’s to lose any more, not with Manchester City’s victory at Crystal Palace which put them in charge. Should City and Liverpool win their remaining games then they will both finish the season on 86 points and, barring a dramatic avalanche of goals for Rodgers’ team, it will be City who claim the title on goal difference for a second time in three seasons.
To be so close after 24 years, having taken full advantage thus far of this unpredictable season, is taking its toll on Anfield. Before the game they lined the streets to cheer in the team bus and by the time that Fernando Torres and Willian broke away to score the second in injury-time at the end of the match there was a wild, impotent rage directed at the little unshaven Portuguese man in his gilet and tracksuit beating his chest in front of the away fans.
This was once a stadium where Mourinho found himself denied and frustrated on occasions in the Rafa Benitez years, but now it feels like he is becoming a curse around the place. As the Chelsea manager reminded everyone afterwards, it is his team who have won home and away against Liverpool and City this season. With their remaining games against Norwich City and Cardiff, Chelsea might yet win the league if the other two contrive to slip.
It was a spiky occasion, testament to the dislike between the two sets of supporters that has grown over recent years. At their hotel in Formby on Saturday night, Chelsea officials reported fireworks being set off outside well after midnight and a receptionist kept busy intercepting calls to the players’ room. Once inside the stadium, Luis Garcia, scorer of the contentious goal against Chelsea in the Champions League semi-final second leg in 2005 was conspicuously introduced as a pre-match guest on the pitch and embraced by Gerrard.
In the opening moments, Chelsea were the brighter side but on eight minutes, Mourinho held onto the ball as Gerrard tried to retrieve it for a throw-in and already the tone was set. The Chelsea players wasted time at every opportunity with Luis Suarez at one point sarcastically applauding Mark Schwarzer as he lingered over his kick.
Unfortunately for Liverpool, their chances were so few. Raheem Sterling was excellent in the first half but he failed to have a meaningful shot on goal. Ashley Cole’s goal-line clearance on 14 minutes was from a Liverpool corner that struck John Obi Mikel and the loose ball fell to Mamadou Sakho who missed. Among Chelsea’s back four, the debutant Tomas Kalas was impressive with Branislav Ivanovic, Ashley Cole and Cesar Azpilicueta now old-hands at this kind of game.
In the space of five days, Cole has come back from the wilderness to play his part in two defensive masterclasses. It has looked like he has never been away. In the second half, Schwarzer saved from Joe Allen and then, at the end of the game touched a shot from Suarez over the bar. The Australian was solid, with Gerrard shooting from range, but he was hardly over-worked.
For the second goal, when Torres advanced there was simply no-one but Simon Mignolet between him and the Liverpool goal, although the Chelsea striker played it safe with a ball square to Willian to finish the move. The absence of a managerial handshake at the end and Rodgers’ withering assessment of Chelsea’s approach – delivered with a smile, it should be said – could put pay to the public, and possibly the private, friendship between the two men.
That makes life a little easier for Rodgers. At Anfield they like their managers to share their own hate-figures, as with Benitez and Sir Alex Ferguson, and at the moment there is no-one the Liverpool support were rather see de-perched than Mourinho. This result told them that accomplishing the mission will be a lot harder than they thought.
Liverpool (4-3-3): Mignolet; Johnson, Skrtel, Sakho, Flanagan (Aspas, 81); Lucas (Sturridge, 58), Gerrard, Allen; Sterling, Suarez, Coutinho.
Substitutes not used: Jones (gk), Toure, Agger, Alberto, Cissokho.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Azpilicueta, Ivanovic, Kalas, Cole; Mikel, Matic; Salah (Willian, 60), Lampard, Schurrle (Cahill, 77); Ba (Torres, 84).
Substitutes not used: Hilario (gk), Van Ginkel, Ake, Baker.
Referee: M Atkinson
Man of the match: Ivanovic
Booked: Chelsea Salah, Lampard, Cole, Torres
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