For 90-plus minutes on Merseyside Saturday, Liverpool and Chelsea clashed in every sense of the word. They hurtled into challenges, raced end to end, and traded chances. They went back and forth with tactical adjustments, tested each other’s goalkeepers and ultimately beat them.
But in the end, those 90 intense, fast-paced, and full-blooded minutes were decided by the most delicate – and probably fluky – of goals.
Willian, two minutes after his first steps onto the Anfield pitch, chipped a cross toward the far post – literally. It found the far corner of Simon Mignolet’s net, and secured Chelsea a share of the spoils that the visitors will gladly take back to London.
Chelsea boss Antonio Conte pumped his fists toward the traveling Chelsea fans at full-time. He vigorously hugged his players and enthusiastically slapped hands. The Blues were the happier of the two sides. Liverpool, meanwhile, was left to rue a second blown lead in five days.
For 20 second-half minutes, the story had been different. For 20 second-half minutes, the story was Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian winger had been a Chelsea player from 2014 to 2016. He even received a Premier League winner’s medal for the 2014-15 triumph. But he last played for Chelsea in 2014. He was permanently sold after two loan spells in Italy.
His story was similar to Kevin De Bruyne’s, and the endings were almost identical. De Bruyne, after finding opportunity difficult to come by at Stamford Bridge, has developed into a world-class player; so has Salah. De Bruyne came back to haunt his former club with the winner in Manchester City’s 1-0 win over Chelsea earlier this season; Salah looked to have done the same.
But this time, Willian, who had come off the bench in the 83rd minute, wrote a different ending in the 85th. His chip, no matter what he might say later, was almost certainly a hopeful cross. It turned into a brilliant shot. And it provided Chelsea an unlikely route to a point.
Throughout the 90 minutes, Salah and Eden Hazard were the two best players on the pitch. They had been the two who seemed most likely to unlock a game that was bolted at 0-0. But they were dealt with in two different manners, because their roles in their respective teams’ attacks are different. That’s why it was Salah who found the key to the match.
With Philippe Coutinho, Daniel Sturridge and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain also threats, to varying degrees, Liverpool doesn’t run exclusively through the Egyptian. It’s therefore difficult to pinpoint him as the focal point of a defensive gameplan. His off-ball movement is also exceptional. As Coutinho and Oxlade-Chamberlain tried to combine on the edge of the area, Salah timed his late-arriving run to perfection.
Chelsea, meanwhile, did everything through Hazard. Liverpool, therefore, did anything it could to stop the Belgian. That included hacking him down time and time again, by whatever method necessary.
The fouls didn’t quash Hazard’s effectiveness, but limited it, especially in the first half. He tested Mignolet with one 20-yard drive. Chelsea’s most notable first-half opportunities came when Danny Drinkwater ventured forward, but the reserve midfielder didn’t have the quality to produce anything meaningful in the final third.
Before Salah broke the deadlock, Chelsea had a couple chances of its own in the second half as well. Hazard did wriggle free on a break, and fed Davide Zappacosta on the right. His cross whizzed through the six-yard box. Multiple Chelsea players failed to get a touch. Alvaro Morata also bundled an earlier chance wide at the near post.
But Chelsea probably deserved something from the game. Conte threw on Cesc Fabregas, Pedro and finally Willian between the 74th and 83rd minutes. The third of the three substitutions bore fruit.
The value of the point in the long run is tough to gauge. On one hand, in a fierce top-six battle, it’s naturally more acceptable for the visitors. It keeps Chelsea firmly in third place, while keeping Liverpool outside the top four.
On the other hand, where the Reds have already given up any hope of a title challenge, the Blues are the defending champions. In the title race, with Manchester City setting a frenetic pace, every single point gained is two dropped, no matter the opponent. Chelsea will fall 11 points off that pace if the Citizens take care of Huddersfield on Sunday.
Perhaps Conte’s fist-pumps are a window into the club’s objectives. A title defense is looking more and more far-fetched. A fight to simply retain a Champions League place is very much on. In that sense, Saturday’s 1-1 draw was a positive result for Chelsea.