In the long run-up to the game that was shaping up to decide this year’s Premier League championship, Chelsea’s mouthy manager José Mourinho had promised that his side and the leaders Liverpool would have “a discussion about the title.” And that they did on Sunday. But for all of Liverpool’s shouting, they were outfoxed by a glorified Chelsea B-team’s muted performance in a 2-0 upset that reopens the title race entirely.
In the third minute of first half injury time, Steven Gerrard, of all people, was played the ball deep in his own half by teammate Mamadou Sakho. Gerrard’s touch was slightly heavy, and he slipped as he pivoted towards the open field. Demba Ba, lurking in his blind side, picked the ball up, scampered off and beat Simon Mignolet with a simple finish. And in 94th minute, Fernando Torres and Willian escaped all alone, for the latter to put the game away.
There was a painful irony in Gerrard’s costly, game-losing slip-up. Two weeks ago, after a cathartic 3-2 home win over their main rivals Manchester City on the 25th anniversary weekend of the Hillsborough stadium crush that killed 96 Liverpool fans in Sheffield, the teary club captain and local hero had assembled his team into a huddle. “It doesn’t [expletive] slip now,” he bellowed at them several times.
The City match had put them in control of their own destiny. The Chelsea match made their grasp on it much more tenuous. With two games to play, Liverpool remain on top. But Chelsea are just two points behind now. And City, with a game later on Sunday afternoon and another in hand, could tie Liverpool on points and would go ahead of them on goal difference by winning those matches.
Some 25 years on from the worst day in their existence, and 24 since their last league title, Liverpool had hoped to lock up the title on Sunday and probably would have with the win.
Their rivals had faltered in recent weeks. Chelsea were distracted by their Champions League campaign, which has gobbled up much energy and focus – and was the reason they rested most of their starters against Liverpool, choosing to save them for Wednesday’s continental semifinals return leg with Atletico Madrid. The Blues had lost three of their last six EPL games.
City, meanwhile, had no such excuse but simply hadn’t been in Liverpool’s imperious form, drawing two and losing one of their last five games. Arsenal, meanwhile, the long-time league-leaders, had won just five of their last 13, even though they were victorious in their last two games.
Simply put, none of them could keep pace with the Reds, who had won 11 in a row leading up to Sunday and hadn’t lost in 16.
Mourinho’s men looked to have traveled north with no greater ambition than avoiding the loss, wasting time from the outset and defending in tightly-packed banks. Liverpool controlled the game, seemingly safe in the knowledge that this was finally their year. But their chances in the first half were sparse. Philippe Coutinho couldn’t get a volley on target and Sakho airmailed his finish from close up on a promising look. They were even spared a penalty when a shot came off Jon Flanagan’s arm in their box in the 38th minute. It was the first time in 25 games that Liverpool didn’t score in first half.
Liverpool began the second half frantically, and save for a brief spell when Chelsea counterpunched, never really let up. Gerrard in particular looked desperate to make amends, but his shots from distance never did connect with the nets. Chelsea are adept at this sort of thing, taking a nihilistic approach to soccer and limiting their opponents to fairly hopeless attempts from long range. Only Joe Allen’s 59th-minute volley slicing away from Mark Schwarzer came close, but the 41-year-old Australian goalkeeper had it covered. He did, too, on Luis Suarez’s late volley.
It had seemed, for the last decade or so, that winning the league was now out of Liverpool’s reach. They were routinely and resoundingly outspent by City and Chelsea, and certainly by Manchester United and Arsenal as well. They hadn’t been close in years. This game was supposed to be a victory party of sorts.
But in this football-affirming season, the most entertaining, deserving and perhaps most likable team are being denied their title, in this loaded year, of all years. For now, at least.