Chelsea and Liverpool both entered their contest at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday evening needing to win to keep any chance of qualifying for the Champions League alive, but neither side showed they deserved to play in UEFA’s elite competition next season.
There were a number of surprises when Liverpool published their team sheet. There was no
Virgil van Dijk on it, with manager Jurgen Klopp subsequently explaining the Dutch centre-back was absent through a bout of illness. Fullbacks Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson were on the bench, along with forward Mohamed Salah. Harvey Elliott was left out altogether.
With Alisson Becker in goal, the visitors had Joel Matip and Ibrahima Konate flanked by Joe Gomez and Kostas Tsimikas in the back four. Fabinho and Jordan Henderson were there in the middle of the park, joined by Curtis Jones as the 21-year-old got the nod ahead of far more experienced players, namely James Milner and Arthur Melo. With Salah rested, the trio of Darwin Nunez, Roberto Firmino and Diogo Jota started upfront.
As for Chelsea, there wasn’t much difference in any aspect following the sacking of Graham Potter a few days ago. Bruno Saltor, who has taken charge of the team for the time being, didn’t have defender Thiago Silva and Cesar Azpiliqueta at his disposal, or striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, while freshly recovered goalkeeper Edouard Mendy started on the bench, as did defender Benoit Badishile. But with that information in mind, the starting XI was more-less as expected.
It was Kepa Arrizabalaga in goal, with the back three of Kalidou Koulibaly, Wesley Fofana and Marc Cucurella. N’Golo Kante, Enzo Fernandez and Mateo Kovacic were packed in the middle of the park, with Reece James and Ben Chilwell out wide. Kai Havertz and Joao Felix were tasked with causing the Liverpool defence problems.
It’s fair to say that Havertz and Felix did cause the Liverpool defence problems, both wasting a number of real opportunities to score. Havertz did manage to put the ball in the net once – using his arm to do so, and James had earlier whacked a fine volley into the back of the net once, only to have his celebrations cut short as he discovered that Fernandez was offside in the buildup. Kovacic also had a good chance early on; having rounded Alisson, he sent the ball towards the gaping net, but Konate was there to stop it from going in.
All in all, Chelsea looked the better team, despite only 49% of possession. They took a total of 10 shots, three on target, compared to Liverpool’s total of four – all saved by Kepa. But it has to be said that both sides appeared completely bereft of confidence, and no better than their respective table positions suggest.
Both Kepa and Alisson were on the top of their game, but the best player on the pitch was arguably Kante.
The 32-year-old was extremely energetic, despite recently coming back from a long injury
layoff. He was constantly in the right place at the right time, mopping up effectively in his own half, picking up any loose ball in his range and brilliantly releasing his attacking teammates with timely and accurate passes.
Kante delivered three key passes, matched only by Chilwell in this game, and a passing accuracy of 92%, more than any other player of either team who spent more than 15 minutes on the pitch. He was crucial in deploying almost every move which caused danger for Liverpool, continuously turning into space and looking to release runners. Meanwhile, only the three defenders in his team had better defensive contribution.
Overall, it was a top-class performance from a top class player – goalkeepers aside, arguably the only one, outplaying every teammate and showing Liverpool exactly the kind of influence they lack in the middle of the park this season.
But none of it matters anymore. The game is over, and despite everything Kante and his teammates did, Chelsea picked up only a point.
Following the forced change of ownership last spring, the Blues spent around £600 million on signings, but Potter, who was appointed to succeed Thomas Tuchel as the manager shortly after the season started, simply couldn’t get the team to perform as a unit. The results suffered to such an extent that finishing inside the top four became practically impossible, and the former Brighton boss got his marching orders after the 0-2 home defeat to Aston Villa on Saturday.
There are players the Blues ranks who occasionally show glimpses of class – most notably Felix, whom the Liverpool defence found extremely hard to deal with, but there’s still plenty to sort out for the new manager.
At the moment, Julian Nagelsmann is reportedly the No. 1 candidate for the job, but it remains to be seen when, and indeed if, an appointment is to take place.
The successes and near misses of last season – both domestic cups won, the Premier League title escaped by a point, the Champions League lost in the final – appear to have taken everything out of the current crop of Liverpool players, and it seems to have been a mistake by Klopp to believe they would be able to recuperate again and pick up where they left off.
The club reportedly planned to bring in a young high-profile midfielder last summer, and having been assured Jude Bellingham would not be leaving Borussia Dortmund, they turned to Aurelien Tchouameni. The France international, however, chose Real Madrid as his destination, and believing they could afford to wait 12 months before making a fresh attempt at signing Bellingham, Liverpool brought in Arthur Melo as a temporary, stop-gap solution. The Juventus loanee played just 13 minutes of the Champions League opener against Napoli, picked up a serious thigh problem which required surgery, and though he’s now back in contention – he was on the bench at Stamford Bridge, he is yet to take to the pitch again.
Elsewhere, the fall in performance levels was most obvious with the likes of Van Dijk, Matip, Alexander-Arnold, Henderson, Fabinho, and more recently, Firmino, who had at least played reasonably well early in the season. Even Salah has been accused of not playing well this term, but in such a dysfunctional team, the Egyptian has still managed to put up decent numbers – 23 goals and 11 assists in 41 appearances in all competitions.
But the jig is up now. A proper rebuilding job is needed, with the midfield section as the priority, but with additions elsewhere too. Whatever may be in store for Liverpool between now and the end of the season, the summer will be a crucial one.
Chelsea are, of course, out of the top-four race now, sitting 11th with 39 points. There’s a gap 11 points wide and eclosing six other teams between them and Tottenham Hotspur. In all honesty, it doesn’t look like the Blues will be playing in Europe next season at all, which may not be a bad thing altogether. A clean start under a new manager, with only the domestic competitions to focus on for a year, might just be what they need to kick on.
Of course, everything will change on that front if Chelsea somehow manage to win the Champions League this term, but they’ll need to do a lot better than this if they are to stand a chance against Real Madrid in the quarterfinals.
Liverpool still have some chance of qualifying for the Champions League, but even for them the chance is fading away, as Klopp himself admitted after the game. At the moment, the Merseysiders are eighth with 43 points, seven less than Spurs, over whom they have a game in hand, but fifth-place Manchester United also have 50, and they have a game in hand on Liverpool. Brighton (46) and Aston Villa (44) have now moved into the space in between the two fierce rivals.
The problem is, Liverpool host title favourites Arsenal next, while Chelsea travel to Wolverhampto
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