After a build-up all around Liverpool that only seemed to be going one way, and inexorably towards that long-awaited Premier League trophy, the Chelsea players sensed the distinct change of direction. It wasn’t with that famous sudden slip on 27 April 2014, but was instead so much more gradual, and intentionally so.
“Luis Suarez was pointing his finger, getting agitated by how the game was getting slowed down,” Mark Schwarzer remembers from that famous day five years ago. “You could feel it was having an effect on the fans, massively, but also the players.
“You could see they thought ‘this is not supposed to be happening, this is not part of the script’.”
It was following Jose Mourinho’s script perfectly, however, as well as a very specific plan. The Portuguese had already been perturbed by the build-up to that 2013-14 title showdown, and the view that an understrength Chelsea were going to be easily turned over by the “neutrals’ favourites”. The atmosphere around the city only further riled him. As he gathered his players in the Liverpool Malmaison Hotel meeting room, Mourinho gestured outside.
“We’re not going to be part of this,” the Chelsea manager said, a slight sneer on his face. “We’re not going to be the club that is the pushover on the way to Liverpool winning the title.”
Mourinho later admitted he felt that “was a day ready for their celebration”. Steven Gerrard himself spoke of how it “was meant to be the title-clincher”. Luis Suarez, previously so superstitious he implored supporters to sing anything other than “we’re gonna win the league”, admitted to letting himself believe.
Schwarzer, the 41-year-old stand-in goalkeeper whose very presence in that weakened Chelsea XI was one other reason Liverpool were believing even more, says it felt like “a foregone conclusion”.
“The whole way up to the stadium was like a carnival atmosphere.”
Mourinho had another term for it. “The circus.”
“They want us to be the clowns in the circus,” he told his players in that pre-game meeting. “The circus is here. Liverpool are to be champions.”
Then the pause.
“But we are not going to be the clowns.”
That was a significant part of the set-up for one of the most seismic games in English football history, that will weigh heavily over Sunday’s rematch at Anfield. That fate has dictated the same title-race fixtures as April 2014 - Crystal Palace-Manchester City; Liverpool-Chelsea - play out on the same day this weekend only adds to this, while reminding everyone how an entire season’s work can evaporate in the space of 90 minutes.
Far from the clowns, the Chelsea players were dramatis personae in an immersive psychodrama, pregnant with immediate and lasting consequence.
There have been many games in English football that have been far more entertaining. Few have had as many enticing narrative elements, however, or as much tension. Fewer still had a single moment as jaw-droppingly meaningful as this.
Even before that warm spring day evolved as it did, that meeting between Liverpool and Chelsea already had enough stark storylines to invigorate any occasion on their own. There was first of all the basic fact it could effectively crown new champions. Six points clear of Manchester City albeit with a game more played, Liverpool winning or drawing would put a 19th title in their hands with a mere two matches to go, after 24 years. This wait weighed on every moment. A Chelsea win would however put them right back into the race and entirely turn it, to ask severe questions of the leaders.
That difference in outlook was complemented by a big difference in philosophy, as the best attack in the league faced the best defence. It was a contrast only kindled by the eternal dynamic of previous master against forward-thinking apprentice. Mourinho was facing his former assistant in Brendan Rodgers, as well as a club in Liverpool who had rejected him in 2004, thereby starting a long and lively antipathy.
So many roads of a remarkable 2013-14 were fittingly converging at Anfield, only for Mourinho to divert it all down a variety of other directions, and clear the stage for something even more climactic.
The Chelsea manager had been justifiably annoyed his team were being made to play a mere three days before the Champions League semi-final second leg against Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, with that influencing his weakened line-up. Mourinho of course went on to ham all of this up in a pantomime press conference and so many provocative pre-game comments. The build-up to one of the biggest title showdowns in years was not filled with all of these grandiose themes that greatly amplified the occasion, but instead the Chelsea manager’s pettier complaints.
If he rightfully railed against the fixture list, he less reasonably radiated a persecution complex, called for “investigative journalism” to get to the root of this, tried to downplay the occasion by insisting he was prioritising the Champions League, and expressed resentment at the media coverage of a lucky Liverpool who’d had all “the breaks”. Mourinho was of course completely unwilling to get into a discussion over whether it was good a team playing attacking football could win the league, or even whether Gerrard personally deserved it.
“A lot of neutrals?!” Mourinho spluttered in disbelief at one question. One senior Chelsea figure added: “Of all the clubs in the league, do you think he will want to play a weakened team against Liverpool?”
And this was one of the keys to the entire game, and what was to become a decisive factor. If the match coloured Gerrard’s entire career, and the day was one of Liverpool’s biggest in 25 years, Mourinho still somehow made it all about himself.
That was some achievement, and required some effort. His unkempt and unshaven appearance - as well as the commotion about how he was travelling separately because he was sick - was all part of it, but wasn’t completely for effect, nor his own sense of ego. It was arguably more necessary than ever.
This is why, whatever about Gerrard’s legacy, that day became a signature career performance for Mourinho. Maybe his last, but one that distilled all of his most distinctive traits as a manager.
Mourinho’s entire intention was to change the whole feel of the day. He didn’t just want to get on with it and focus on his own team, because the nature of that team required Liverpool’s focus to be disrupted.
All of Eden Hazard, Petr Cech and John Terry were out.
A 41-year-old Schwarzer, a 21-year-old Mohamed Salah and a 20-year-old Tomas Kalas - who’d never started a senior game for Chelsea - were in. The young Czech had joked only two weeks beforehand that he was merely “a player for training sessions”.
“If they need a cone, they put me there.”
Now here Kalas was being put into the cauldron, against one of the most fearsome attacks in English history.
Just as with the presumptuous atmosphere around Liverpool, though, Mourinho sought to turn this into a positive. The Portuguese went around the room in the team meeting, and asked every player where they’d made their senior debut. He then turned to Kalas.
“Tomas, you’re making your debut at Anfield,” Mourinho said, intensely, but encouragingly. “What an unbelievable experience. What an unbelievable occasion.”
Except, by then, Chelsea players did believe. The “clowns” comment had provoked their sense of pride.
“Absolutely,” Schwarzer says. “We had a feeling we’d been disrespected, classed as an easy pushover, and that it was going to be an easy win for Liverpool with the title just about there. There was a lot of that in the team meeting beforehand, and the changing room. There were points to prove, a real determination within the group not to roll over.
“Whether he believed it himself, I don’t know, but Jose made us believe.”
It was belief, however, with a highly rationalised focus. This was where Mourinho’s real genius on the day was, where his best characteristics came together as he married fierce psychology with a forensic tactical mind.
He fired the Chelsea players up, to slow everything right down.
Liverpool’s own belief - and the confidence at the core of the day - was itself based on a relentless 11-game winning run, that had been built on the fastest football the Premier League had seen. That was in terms of both the pace of the play, and the speed with which Rodgers’s rampaging side were scoring.
Liverpool had that season hit 24 goals in the opening 20 minutes of games, with nine coming in the opening five minutes of games. This ratcheted up during the run-in. Four of the five matches at Anfield before the Chelsea match had seen Liverpool score after: one minute; three minutes; two minutes and six minutes.
Two such goals came in the sensational win over City, with the way it actually went to 2-2 only offering another emotional lift, as Liverpool claimed a late winner.
Their confidence was just continuously being fired, never even flickering. Every early goal fired every win, with that gradually convincing every player - even figures as cautious as Gerrard, or as superstitious as Suarez.
“It was as if there was a kind of destiny guiding us,” the Uruguayan said of that run in his book ‘Crossing the Line’. Rodgers further stoked this, not unreasonably swelling the egos of his team.
One Liverpool player privately confides that the manager fostered a sense of “fairytale” about it all, and that they were “basically floating on confidence and a brilliant Luis Suarez”.
All of it fostered this fantastically intense football, that was by then so second-nature it was played on instinct, and only invigorated by the frenetic energy of the raucous Anfield crowd. There was no greater display of this than that win over City, that involved the emotional empowerment of coming on the same week as the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough.
Rodgers had even played on some of the emotion, by getting the players’ mothers to come up with speeches that were read out before games on the run-in, bringing some players to tears. This was influenced by Professor Steve Peters, who was working on the psychology of the side.
It helped ensure Liverpool barely had to think about how they attacked, because it was all coming so naturally.
The challenge for Mourinho was to disrupt that, to make them think about it all again, as well as the historic weight of what it all meant.
The way to do that was literally at source, and those fast starts.
Mourinho had been greatly thinking about this himself, to the point he had drilled what amounted to set-piece routines for time-wasting.
“I remember, for the very first goal-kick of the game, Jose had instructions for me and Branislav Ivanovic,” Schwarzer tells The Independent. “He said to me, ‘you go to the ball, and Brana, you go as far as you can to the touchline. Mark, set it up as if you’re going to play it out at the back, then Brana, you put your hand up and say you’ll take it. Be as far away as you possibly can and then casually walk over and take it.’
“That was the ploy, to slow it right down. Because they wanted the game to be high-tempo, wanted to catch the opposition out, wanted to bombard them, like they did all season very successfully. So the instruction was to play to the limit until the referee cautioned you.”
Or beyond. One of Mourinho’s last instructions was: “Lads, I want at least two bookings for time-wasting before half-time.”
He didn’t get that, but did get everything else. “We followed our instructions down to a tee,” Schwarzer says.
It had a pronounced effect.
Anfield had not been tense before kick-off. It was the opposite, giddily anticipating this historic opportunity. The stadium was already so boisterously loud, before Luis Garcia was presented minutes before kick-off. The scorer of the famous “ghost goal” between the sides in the 2004-05 Champions League, he raised the roof, and raised memories of just how deep the acrimony between the clubs went.
That was very quick to resurface. It didn’t take long for the roars to become rumbles of anger, as Schwarzer took 15 seconds over the first kick-out. Cesar Azpilicueta was soon labouring over a throw-in, and Andre Schurrle was playing back-passes from the halfway line.
“I remember the manager saying right from the off, take your time, don’t allow them to gain momentum, get the fans riled up, get them out of their rhythm,” Schwarzer explains. “And it worked.”
Like, well, clockwork. By the third minute, Liverpool players were openly complaining about it to referee Martin Atkinson. By the fourth, Suarez was asking Azpilicueta why they were wasting time. By the sixth, remarkably, Gerrard and Jon Flanagan were actually trying to wrestle the ball out of Mourinho’s hands as he mischievously held it behind his body when it went out for a throw.
“Brendan was infuriated by Chelsea’s time-wasting,” Gerrard said in his autobiography. “So was I.”
“We should not have been dragged in,” Suarez added.
The really relevant point to this was that it was a level of agitation, and impatience, that just didn’t fit with the fact Liverpool only needed a draw.
Why not just let Chelsea indulge in this nonsense themselves? Why get so affected?
It was naivety from Liverpool, in truth, that maybe betrayed a lack of nous. Gerrard did admit he felt Rodgers was guilty of “over-confidence”.
“He thought we could go out and attack Chelsea - just as we had done against Manchester City and Norwich,” Gerrard wrote. “We should have made ourselves hard to beat and spoilt the game and been ugly, just like they were… you need that mentality against a serial winner like Mourinho.”
One Liverpool dressing-room source still disputes this. “With the players we had, and how the entire run was built on goals galore, I don’t see how we could have changed for the better.”
Liverpool’s in-game mentality by then had changed, but certainly not for the better.
Slowing the match down had wound them up, and also caused them to go from side to side weighing up every decision. Their game was no longer coming naturally. Chelsea had indeed disrupted their rhythm, as virtually everyone involved has eventually alluded to. Rodgers last year admitted they were “over-thinking” - exactly what Mourinho intended.
Liverpool had all the ball and all the pressure, but were doing little with it, and certainly weren’t doing what they usually did.
Their only real first-half chance was, uncharacteristically, from a set-piece that Ashley Cole cleared off the line in the 13th minute.
Philippe Coutinho was otherwise overhitting passes, Gerrard was failing to make it past the first man with subsequent set-pieces, and Suarez was shanking shots. It was all so forced.
Gerrard admitted that they’d been “trying too hard”, that he and Suarez had been “straining the whole half to make something happen”.
“We had none of our usual tempo and venom,” he said. “Even Suarez looked off-colour.”
The Uruguayan acknowledged as much in his own book and that he was “frustrated”. “They pulled us out of our normal routine,” he wrote.
This was crucial, and an encapsulation of a quality essential to the highest-level sporting events, that often decides them. It is when the pressure of a situation affects psychology to such a degree that it disproportionately affects performance; that players stop doing what they normally do. Call it “bottle”, call it whatever. The point here was that Liverpool were no longer calling the shots, or having any of value.
The frenetic energy of the crowd and the occasion had spilled right over, into something else that had by then created a deep sense of suspense.
Rodgers referenced this in February, saying of Anfield that “the support is amazing” but “it’s been so long the emotion can really affect them”. When he at one point engaged in an idle chat with Mourinho, fans near the press box erupted, angrily roaring as if this was dialogue with a wartime enemy rather than an exchange with an opposition manager.
Chelsea had noticed all of this, as Schwarzer insists. Tension by now gripped the ground.
Mourinho’s slowing of the game had created an engagingly slow-burn occasion. “An ugly game” as Suarez said, yes, but an utterly immersive one.
“There’s an edge out there,” Gary Neville said on Sky Sports. “Things will happen today.”
Chelsea, however, weren’t going to just wait for it to happen. Their gameplan wasn’t just based on psychologically frustrating Liverpool.
They were first of all defending with the kind of intense defiance Mourinho makes instinctive in his own best sides. They were secondly trying to funnel Liverpool in certain directions, to create their own openings.
“We closed the gaps in the middle of the pitch, because that’s how they wanted to play,” Schwarzer explains. “It was through you all the time. We felt, in trying to do that, they would open up and commit players forward. Jose said there would be a point where they would lose the ball in a difficult situation, in a bad position, and then we had to make the most of it.”
The game panned out exactly like that. It was the type of apparent clairvoyance that had in the past made Mourinho seem like a prophet, also making so many previous players idolise him. It just worked out worst for the man Anfield idolised above any other, and who Mourinho at one point wanted to sign above any other.
Just as the Portuguese had predicted, Liverpool’s play had progressed to the point where they so strived to open Chelsea that Gerrard found himself as the last man.
So it came, just before half-time, the moment from the match that would really last in history.
Gerrard tried to control a Mamadou Sakho pass, lost his concentration, lost his footing, and lost the title. He admitted later he had been overly focused on Demba Ba, and then could only watch as the striker went and scored.
That the moment was a darkly ironic inversion of Gerrard’s words after the 3-2 win over City represented the type of narrative twist only sport can believably offer, as the player most identified with Liverpool’s quest for the title was central to its failure. The rallying call that “this does not slip” now feels like some linguistic version of Chekov’s gun, as all manner of drama was fired.
There was then the fact the goal was scored in the time added on for Chelsea’s time-wasting. You wouldn’t have scripted it.
Gerrard would later reveal that a contributory factor was a back injury, and that he probably wouldn’t have played had it not been a title-decider against Chelsea, who he had his own history with.
That was no solace at half-time. “I was a wreck,” he said, “unable to say a word.”
Rodgers, for his part, said the best words he could. He told Gerrard “it happens” and “to forget it, asserting the game was still there to be won. There was one way the team as a whole could do that, too.
“If anyone deserves to be bailed out, it’s him,” Rodgers said to the rest of the side. “The amount of times he’s pulled this club out of a mess and changed impossible situations and got players out of trouble are the stuff of legend. Now it’s time you repay him. Your captain needs you to all pay him back.”
The problem was that Gerrard himself now felt he had to pay everyone else back. He tried to do it all himself.
The second half saw Gerrard attempt a total of eight shots, with Opta calculating that all were from an average of 27 yards out. Only four were even on target, and none really troubled Schwarzer.
“I was desperate to atone for my error,” Gerrard admitted.
It was an impatience now fully reflecting the impatience of the Anfield crowd. The spell of the stadium had been broken. It had instead fallen under the spell of Mourinho.
“He’s the master of it, isn’t he?” Schwarzer says. “The Liverpool fans, the players, could see it all unfolding. It was unravelling, their biggest fears happening in front of them that day.
“Their hearts were in their mouths. The whole stadium went quiet.”
So did Liverpool’s previously raucous play. Mourinho had disrupted everything. This was also just another situation they were now unused to, at least in this run-in. Since that winning streak started in mid-February, Liverpool had only trailed in matches for 23 minutes. They now couldn’t adapt to it. A team that had been so imaginative were suddenly out of ideas. Their passing was slow, with little movement.
“I don’t remember it really being backs to the wall,” Schwarzer says. He also argues there was not enough movement from Liverpool's manager.
“I know Brendan Rodgers said we had ‘two buses parked’ and I can see where he's coming from, but it’s just the fact we slowed the game down and didn’t get drawn out of position. We felt if you were going to beat us, you’re going to have to work for it and do something different. And they didn’t. They stuck to their gameplan. They refused to do anything different. I remember he got criticised for not having a Plan B.”
The Independent’s dressing-room source argues that there couldn’t be a traditional “plan B”, because Liverpool just didn’t have anyone to attack crosses. It was one reason they signed Rickie Lambert in the summer.
By that point in the game, though, they barely had the belief to send in crosses. One Iago Aspas corner infamously went straight to Willian.
Liverpool attacks were now just set-ups for Chelsea surges, which was the source of the final goal. There was another call-back to the controversies of their rivalry, as former Anfield hero Fernando Torres had the chance to seal it. He squared for Willian to make it 2-0, the pass looking almost apologetic. There was nothing apologetic about Mourinho. He revelled in it all, running up to Chelsea away support, and beating the club crest on his gilet.
As he walked down the tunnel, Mourinho could be heard shouting “They wanted the clowns! They wanted the clowns!”
The tour de force continued in the post-match press conference. He offered to cough on a journalist who asked whether he was actually sick, proclaimed that the best team had won, and then acted with wounded innocence when asked about Chelsea’s early tactics.
“Time-wasting? What’s that?”
There was even a drive-by for another Sky pundit.
“You speak with Jamie Redknapp and he'll tell you everything! It was about winning. You have your pundits. Jamie Redknapp is a brilliant football brain. He can explain everything.”
This was Mourinho at his best, or his worst, depending on your perspective.
Rodgers was much more direct in his barb, when asked whether the victory was down to the Portuguese’s tactics.
“No I don't think it's a tactic to have players behind the ball - anyone can do that. It's the nature of how Chelsea play.
“It ends what has been a brilliant run for us, and now we'll recover.”
The reality is that Liverpool didn’t really recover, for a long time, until now. While one player in that side feels they did show resolve in immediately going 3-0 up against Crystal Palace in the very next game, he believes the way they collapsed to draw 3-3 effectively finished that team psychologically.
It didn’t help that they’d never been in that situation up to then, and that it all happened so quickly, in every sense. It almost caught everyone unaware that they were suddenly in a title race, pointing to how they greatly overachieved. There remains a sense of pride at that, especially among Rodgers and his staff.
And there were also long-term lessons from the match, even if that battle - and the title - was lost. It emphasised that the trend in the modern game was towards progressive football. This is what Jurgen Klopp has continued, and one Anfield source maintains that the attacking spirit in the current side is very similar to 2013-14. It also proved something of a bell-weather about Mourinho, too. While his reactive approach can always be supremely effective in any given big game, it is no longer so successful in the long run. That match five years ago, as one figure who has worked with him argues, was something of a last stand; maybe his last truly great managerial performance.
It has not become Liverpool’s last tilt at a title. They now just have to bury the ghosts of April 2014.
They go again, with more hope than before. These two teams play in such a game again, with even more weight than before, partly because of that momentous afternoon.
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