Saturday 24 August 2019

Similarities to five years ago all too stark for Liverpool

Chelsea have peak Eden Hazard at the moment
Chelsea have peak Eden Hazard at the moment

Paul Wilson

Steven Gerrard is probably looking away already, for while the fifth anniversary of his infamous slip against Chelsea is still a couple of weeks away, deja vu is inescapable when today's fixtures offer an exact repeat of the situation when Liverpool last saw a title slide out of view.

Their rivals then, as now, were Manchester City, away at Crystal Palace on April 27, 2014 as Liverpool prepared to meet second-placed Chelsea at Anfield. The difference is that five years ago Liverpool were in the driving seat, a 16-game unbeaten run that included thumping wins against Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham having taken them top of the Premier League with 80 points. Chelsea were five behind with three games remaining, City trailed by six and had also lost at Anfield but, crucially, had four games left to play.

There seems little doubt that had Liverpool beaten Chelsea they would have gone on to win the league. In those circumstances they could even have afforded the 3-3 draw at Selhurst Park eight days later and still finished top by a point.

Perhaps more likely is that victory against Chelsea would have emboldened Liverpool to win all their remaining games, as City did to take the title, and there is even the possibility that a display of invincibility from the leaders might have daunted or disheartened Manuel Pellegrini's chasers.

Those thoughts must have been uppermost in the minds of the Liverpool supporters who thronged the streets around Anfield as the home-team coach arrived for the Chelsea game, slowing its progress despite the police escort, setting off celebratory flares and sending the players to their work with chants of "we're going to win the league".

Anyone who knows anything about hubris will understand that the gods do not go about putting humans in their place without a sense of humour, and so it was that with the game still scoreless in first-half stoppage time, the Liverpool captain and world's most frustrated man at the lack of a league title since 1990 made a double faux pas, first miscontrolling a pass and then stumbling in his attempt to recover. As terrace songs recall to this day, Demba Ba was on it in an instant, and from going a goal down Liverpool never recovered in the game or the title race.

Some would argue that one momentary slip did not by itself cost Liverpool the title, pointing to Willian's late second goal and points subsequently dropped to Palace, though actually it did. A draw against Chelsea would probably have sufficed for Liverpool, and José Mourinho would happily have settled for a scoreless outcome before an upcoming Champions League semi-final.

Brendan Rodgers accused his opposite number of parking two buses , adding that only one team had been trying to win the game, both comments sitting uneasily with a final scoreline of 2-0.

Without the gift to Ba, Liverpool would surely have been more resolute at Palace, where they let a three-goal lead slip in the last 12 minutes, but even had they held on to win that game they would have finished only level with City, and their goal difference was inferior.

Both City and Liverpool reached a century of league goals in 2013-14, the first time two teams had managed the feat in the same season and a testament to the potency of Sergio Agüero and Edin Dzeko on one side and Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge on the other.

Yet while the goals-scored columns were similar, Pellegrini's defence conceded 13 goals fewer, hence the goal difference margin of 14 that would have acted as insurance for City in almost any event following Chelsea's win at Anfield.

What lessons have been learned since? Liverpool have tightened up their defence under Jürgen Klopp. They have conceded only 20 goals all season, one fewer than City to boast the best record in the league, and have lost only one game to their rivals' four.

But City under Pep Guardiola are even more inexorable than they were in Pellegrini's first season. They surrendered the initiative through unexpected defeats around the turn of the year, and won it back again due to Liverpool's propensity for drawing games.

Looking at today's matches, at least Liverpool know they will not be facing a defence organised by a genius. In retrospect, the erstwhile Special One's masterclass in neutralising and then beating a rampant Liverpool, complete with wry jokes about why it was not being greeted as a beautiful victory, can be seen as peak Mourinho, one of the last examples of the much-maligned manager doing what he does best.

Chelsea have peak Eden Hazard at the moment and maybe not for much longer, though whether Maurizio Sarri is capable of springing an ambush in the Mourinho fashion is less clear. Chelsea need points to stay in the top four but on Merseyside a month ago were comfortably beaten by Everton .

City have won eight league matches in a row since their surprising defeat at Newcastle in January and it would be a surprise were the sequence to be interrupted at Selhurst Park, though not as monumental a shock as the 3-2 win Roy Hodgson's team achieved at the Etihad just before Christmas.

That setback led to further points being dropped at Leicester and it is just possible the defeat by Spurs in the Champions League in midweek will have a similarly draining effect on confidence, though City have a home leg to redress the situation and, with only four wins all season, Palace's home form is not that great.

When Palace were helping deny Liverpool's title hopefuls five years ago, Tony Pulis was on his way to the Manager of the Year award for his astonishing transformation of relegation candidates into a mid-table force. So it could be said, if it makes Gerrard feel any better, that in 2014 Liverpool were knocked off course by two phenomenal managers. If there is to be a twist in this season's title tale engineered by Sarri or Hodgson, the moment has now arrived. (Observer)

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