Monday 25 September 2017

Reds just not good enough for tilt at title

Hazard and Oscar magic serves as reality check for a Liverpool side three or four top players short of big guns

Luis Suarez joins team-mate Martin Skrtel to celebrate Liverpool’s opening goal
Luis Suarez joins team-mate Martin Skrtel to celebrate Liverpool’s opening goal
James Lawton

James Lawton

Liverpool are hardly in decline, even if they have tumbled from first to fifth in the Christmas action. However, they will be smart to bury quickly their latest outrage over perceived injustice, this time at the hand of referee Howard Webb.

Perhaps the Premier League's leading official made a mistake when he decided Luis Suarez was crying wolf again when he sprawled under the challenge of Samuel Eto'o for a penalty appeal that might have rescued Liverpool.

Maybe, overall, Webb did give too many benefits of the doubt to Chelsea, but then one fact really had to go unchallenged at Stamford Bridge yesterday.

It was that, for the moment at least, Liverpool are kidding themselves if they believe they are ready to trade the big blows with the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and an impressively resilient Arsenal.

They can ride the surge of Suarez's outrageous form and productivity, the sense that he can transform any situation, only so far.

This, when you run the check on rival resources, makes a best-case scenario of Champions League qualification, but then there is also the spectre of Manchester United clanking back into contention. Nor are Everton likely to dwindle away too quickly under the fierce application of Roberto Martinez.

It means that Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers is obliged to make the most impassioned entreaty to the owners.

Yes, he can say to John W Henry, we are running impressively ahead of any reasonable schedule. We are drawing astonishing amounts of oxygen from Suarez's currently unsullied inspiration and that in young Phillipe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling the great Uruguayan enigma has playmates clearly capable of growing to new levels.

However, there is one reality which screamed from the 2-1 Chelsea victory.

It is that Liverpool are still three or four significant players short of a serious title challenge. When Martin Skrtel exploited the confusion created in the Chelsea box by still another biting Suarez intervention, Rodgers' team had the perfect base for some serious insurgency at Stamford Bridge.

Unfortunately, the truth was that it never began to happen. Liverpool could not build on their platform for the most basic of reasons. Ultimately, they were just not good enough.

Of course, there was another item to be fed into the equation. With half the season completed, guess what? Once again Jose Mourinho looks as if he may well be on his way to making another team, another force which he calculates is beginning to operate on its maximum strengths.

Against Liverpool, Eden Hazard and Oscar gave us fresh reminders that on their best days they operate on an entirely different level to most of the rest of the football population.

They orchestrated the response to that Skrtel strike with both beautiful skill and something that could only be described as a superior competitive arrogance.

And there on the touchline was a Mourinho beginning to glow with fresh reproaches for all those critics who have had the temerity to even hint that the Special One might not these days be quite so special.

"Sometimes," he says, "it is necessary look very carefully at what you are doing, identify your weakness and then work very hard. We were losing too many easy goals, bringing too many opponents back to life, and that I am very happy to say is over. I'm very pleased with the way my team is developing."

Liverpool did, it is true, re-animate themselves to some degree in the second half -- but never to the point where they seemed capable of undermining the new conviction of Mourinho's defence and midfield poise.

John Terry, playing his 600th game for Chelsea, and Gary Cahill attended to the threat of Suarez so resolutely that in the end Liverpool attacked with more hope than conviction. By comparison, Mourinho's men looked as if they were travelling back towards some of their terrain.

Hazard was especially convincing. He seems to be drawing on his skill with every increasing facility. He summons it in the tightest situations, and when he does you see the shoulders of his opponents slump a little more.

When he equalised, after some skilled probing from Oscar, it was a statement of luxurious power. Simon Mignolet was plainly mesmerised by the flight of the ball.

Chelsea's second mocked this season's scoring statistics. It was only the sixth scored by a combination of Fernando Torres, brooding on the touchline again, Demba Ba and yesterday's swordsman Eto'o.

PREDATORY

Oscar created the chance with the finest of judgment, Eto'o seized upon it with one of those almost subliminal shifts of movement which announced the best of predatory talent.

No wonder Mourinho performed rituals of ecstatic celebration on the touchline. Plainly, he has suffered a psychologically demanding time

His denouement at Real Madrid was savage for a man who had made such a reputation and he was said to have been stunned, even dismayed by Manchester United's preference for David Moyes as Alex Ferguson's successor. Now, though, he seems to have returned to some of his old certainties.

Surely, though, he will push for the transfer action which he believes is necessary if the increasing authority of Manchester City and the resurrection of Arsenal are to be properly engaged in the home run to the title.

At this point, it is not so easy to separate the claims of City and Chelsea. Both are supported by an enviable range of talent and in the charge of managers who seem to have made a fine assessment of their resources.

Yesterday's big question was where this left Liverpool. The answer, the American owners have to be told, is still some way from the most serious pace.

Irish Independent

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