Tuesday 18 June 2019

Real test of Liverpool

THEY printed t-shirts.

"Liverpool: Premier League Champions 2013/14," they read. Nothing good was ever going to come from that. Those of a certain vintage will recall the famous five in-a-row t-shirts printed and sported with familiar Kerry swagger and confidence in the lead up to the 1982 All Ireland final.

To this day you'll meet people convinced that it was they and not Seamus Darby that cost the Kingdom a famous victory. We're not so sure about that, but those t-shirts were emblematic of a premature counting of chickens. Same goes for those ones seen on the streets around Anfield last weekend.

You had Brendan Rodgers saying – and not really convincing anyone – in the lead up to the Chelsea match that he'd never slept better. Cool as a cumber, supremely confident.

You had the fans on the Kop singing with increasing lustre and gusto that "we're going to win the league". You had a raft of newspaper articles talking about the rebirth of an empire. You even had references to how Liverpool were back on that famous perch, which Alex Ferguson worked so hard to knock them off.

From where we're sitting until such time as Liverpool actually win the league, knocked off that perch shall they remain. Everybody was getting swept up and carried away with the romance and the emotion of the past couple of weeks. The improbable had become probable; to most people a matter of when and not if.

Liverpool, it's now easy to conclude, were destined for a fall. After eleven successive Premier League victories a lot of us began to think them invincible. We ignored the evidence of our own eyes. The nervy, error strewn victory over Sunderland. The tough battle against West Ham. The near disaster at Carrow Road.

Sooner rather than later reality had to bite and no better man than Jose Mourinho to deliver the coup de grace. This was a game made for him and we're not talking all that nonsense about fielding a weakened team and diminished expectations.

A cautious, safety first, counter-attacking approach was clearly the best way to deal with this Liverpool side. Mourinho knew that, we knew that... did Brendan Rodgers? Surely he did and yet we cannot for one moment criticise the Antrim man for sticking to his guns and playing the type of football that had brought Liverpool to this point.

Chelsea may have been perfectly set up to deal with Liverpool's particular type of shock and awe tactics, but if Liverpool didn't play that way what other option had they? They know no other way. Their best form of defence is attack. Their best form of defence is to hold the ball and press and probe.

The idea that they could have ceded the initiative to Chelsea and played for the draw that they needed just doesn't stack up. Is Coutinho going to have the muscle to stop Matic? Is Sterling going to have the heft to prevent Lampard from surging into the box for a trademark strike at goal?

No, Liverpool had to stay true to their principles on this occasion at least. In the first half Chelsea looked what they are in the big games: defensively solid and somewhat limited (deliberately so), if occasionally dangerous, in offensive positions.

As long as the Reds didn't make a fatal mistake, the draw they needed was there for the taking. The mistake came, Chelsea took advantage, they won. Liverpool's bubble well and truly burst.

From the moment Gerrard slipped, from the moment Ba took it on and slid it past Mingolet under the Kop, the game was effectively over. Chelsea's "two buses" remained in place.

The previously serene Rodgers showed his irritation in post match interviews.

Gerrard, up to now content to play the role of playmaker at the base of the diamond, bombed forward and struck shot after shot after shot, trying, hoping against hope, to make up for his first half mistake. It was Gerrard in Roy of the Rovers mode for the first time in half a season.

Not a good reaction to adversity from the Pool. Nothing like how they reacted to City drawing level last month or Norwich pegging them back. Liverpool were somewhat ragged by the end, out of ideas, out of energy. That's the most worrying thing from Liverpool's point of view – that and the fact the title race is no longer in their own hands.

How Rodgers' men react to this, their first significant set-back since they were last beaten by Chelsea on December 29, is hugely significant. Regain that old verve, win those two final games and City just might be pressured into a mistake or two of their own.

This title is still there to be won. The crown, for now, sits atop City's head, but, as we're told and as last weekend proved, uneasy rests the head that wears the crown.

Roll on Saturday.