After securing participation in the 2017/18 Champions League final, Liverpool travelled to Stamford Bridge in the game before last of their Premier League campaign. Regardless of the outcome of the final, a point against Chelsea would have been enough to secure involvement in Europe’s elite club competition for the second consecutive time.
Unable to count on Joel Matip, Joe Gomez, Emre Can, Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jürgen Klopp chose the following line-up to try and wrap up top-four placement with a game to spare:
Chelsea have had a torrid season and have come to the brink of missing out on Champions League football after an utterly failed attempt of defending the Premier League title they won in 2016/17. Antonio Conte has seemed to have lost control over there for a while now. He’s constantly having digs at the club in public and it seems quite inevitable, regardless of the way they end this season (they are yet to play the FA Cup final) it seems the Italian will soon be gone.
This is the team he prepared to try and spoil it all for the Reds:
The First Half
It took Roberto Firmino less than three minutes to get into a great chance to score. Having made a diagonal run to the right, the Brazilian was set up by Trent Alexander-Arnold’s fantastic pass from deep, and he blasted it first-time on target, but Thibaut Courtois produced a fine save.
Liverpool controlled the game with ease early on. They found it very easy to keep possession, weaving passes and making their hosts chase the ball around.
But after 15 minutes, both teams could have taken the lead within 60 seconds. Chelsea were finally attacking, and a great pull-back by Victor Moses was going towards Tiemoue Bakayoko in a very dangerous position, but Olivier Giroud took it off his foot, got himself into a crowd of Red shirts and had his shot blocked.
The rebound was won by Firmino, who involved Georginio Wijnaldum and the Dutchman had Sadio Mane running with the ball. However, Mane couldn’t escape his pursuit and chose to lay it off for Andy Robertson, whose cross was very poor. Less than a minute later, Alexander-Arnold lost the ball in his own half to Bakayoko who passed to Eden Hazard. Hazard found Marcos Alonso in lots of space on the edge of the box and the Spaniard whacked it, but straight at Loris Karius. Another Liverpool counterattack followed with Wijnaldum and James Milner engaging Mane again, but before the Senegalese could capitalize on the situation, N’Golo Kante caught up with him from behind and dispossessed him with an accurate tackle.
Liverpool again came close three times between minutes 20 an 25. First, a nice pass from Firmino and a lay-off from Salah enabled Nathaniel Clyne to aim a cross at Mane in a good position, but Mane couldn’t direct it goalwards. Then, Mane whacked a good one from around 25 yards, low, hard and on target, and Courtois made a nice save parrying it out for a corner. Chelsea were immediately saved again by their goalkeeper as the corner, whipped in by Alexander-Arnold towards the free Virgil van Dijk at the far post, was palmed off his head by the Belgian.
Liverpool were calmly controlling the game at that point and had another chance around the half-hour mark. Robertson engaged Mane again and Mane tried his luck once more, from a bit closer to the goal than the last time, Courtois parried it away, Firmino picked it up and put in the middle for the oncoming Mane, but all Mane could do was poke it tamely into Courtois’ hands.
And then, just as the Reds were growing comfortable, Chelsea hit back hard and within two minutes they were up. First, they circled the box from left to right – Alonso, Hazard, Fabregas, Moses. Moses then whipped in a cross and Bakayoko found himself in a great position to score, but his header went wide.
Nevertheless, they made the very next attack count. Moses again aimed a cross from the right, it got slightly deflected on the way into the box, flew over van Dijk but fell well ahead of Dejan Lovren. Racing for the ball against Giroud, Lovren was slightly impeded by Fabregas and the Frenchman got there first, perfectly placing the ball past the helpless Karius into the far corner. The clock was showing 32 minutes had gone.
Just four minutes later, they came close to doubling the advantage as good work from Moses and Hazard on the right set Fabregas up for a nice chance, but the former Arsenal captain dragged his shot across and wide.
Liverpool’s game was falling to pieces right then and there. They went from having everything under control to barely staying alive in the game in a few minutes. Maybe the best indicator of the state everything was in was in the 39th minute when Salah went down on the edge of the box far too easily after the slightest of contacts (if it even existed) by Cahill and saw referee Anthony Taylor raise the yellow card against him for diving. One minute later Clyne found himself in the book too for a late tackle on Alonso.
For the remainder of the half, the Reds mostly held the ball but couldn’t do anything with it.
The Second Half
During the second 45 minutes, the game was mostly balanced. Chelsea, having the result they needed in their hands, always seemed more composed, always seemed more likely to achieve their goal in the end. Liverpool’s game was sloppy in possession, complemented occasionally by poor decision making and lacking focus in defence.
The Reds were, however, the first team to threaten after the break, but a promising combination between Salah and Firmino eventually got the Egyptian crowded out and his shot blocked. But a minute later it was Chelsea’s turn again. Hazard, whose performance in this clash was of highest quality, beat first Lovren and then Alexander-Arnold as well to hold on to the ball deep in Liverpool’s half, and then gave it to Fabregas who extended it to Moses on the right. Moses smacked a shot across the goal and wide.
A series of uninspired attacks from both teams followed, ending in Alexander-Arnold and Kante whacking extremely inaccurate shots from range and Trent again and Alonso at the other end sending in hopeful but ineffective crosses.
Chelsea even had a goal rightfully disallowed. Hazard took a corner, Cahill won the header around the penalty spot and found Antonio Rudiger who put the ball in the net and started running wildly in celebration, only to realize the flag had been raised against him for offside.
In the 59th minute, Klopp sent in Jordan Henderson for Clyne. Trent retreated to the right-back spot while Wijnaldum moved a bit further up to accommodate the captain as the No.6.
The game went on in the same manner as it had been before, but after Bakayoko’s poor shot in the 61st minute, Liverpool were starting to push Chelsea back again. Five minutes later, Salah went down again. This time it was inside the box, and it should be said that he had a case as Cahill was dragging him down across the shoulder, but Taylor waved it away. Did the first-half booking of Salah help the referee make his mind up on this occasion too? Possibly.
In the 72nd minute, Firmino and Salah were stopped in Chelsea’s box and a counterattack sprang, but Hazard and Giroud suffered the same fate as Liverpool defended well too.
Two minutes later, Robertson made way for Dominic Solanke, and Milner moved to the left-back spot.
But the Reds’ sloppiness went on and on. Misplaced passed, poor first touches, wrong choices in attack, all these things kept haunting them throughout the second half.
Alonso and Moses were booked in the 79th and 81st minute, respectively, for time-wasting, but in between the two bookings the Chelsea wing-backs combined for what was nearly a spectacular goal. Moses’ cross to the far post was met by Alonso’s impeccable volley that only just missed the target.
With 6 minutes remaining, Cezar Azpilicueta was very fortunate not to beat his own goalkeeper as he tried to deal with a Henderson cross and completely mishit it. In the end it was calmly picked up by Courtois.
Then, Hazard made way for Willian.
Two minutes later, Alexander-Arnold picked up a misplaced pass from Cahill but sent it straight into the hands of Courtois, right before a long ball into the box by Lovren found the head of Solanke and the youngster sent his header just over the bar.
A minute before time, Klopp pulled his last string by replacing Milner with Alberto Moreno. Conte responded with Davide Zappacosta coming on for Moses. Two minutes into the stoppage time the Chelsea manager took out Fabregas and brought on Pedro, with the obvious intention of wasting some more time. Meanwhile, Klopp ordered van Dijk to go up front.
Two crosses from Mane followed. One was headed off target by Solanke under pressure from Rudiger, while the other was tamely headed into the grateful arms of Courtois by van Dijk. And that was it.
It can hardly be argued that Liverpool deserved to get anything from this game. Some fatigue or hangover was certainly to be expected after fighting their way into the Champions League final, but there can be very little excuse for a performance like this.
Now, unless Chelsea unexpectedly lose to Huddersfield Town at home on Wednesday, the Reds need to put their all into the last league game of the season – against Brighton & Hove at Anfield next week. With the whole week to prepare, they will hopefully be ready to strike and not allow any surprises.
We walk on.