Chelsea capture edge with draw vs. Liverpool in League Cup semifinal

Chelsea players celebrates after Eden Hazard opened the match after slotting home his penalty kick attempt vs. Liverpool on Tuesday night.

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English football’s least-loved major tournament got back underway with a 1-1 draw between Liverpool and Chelsea at a snowy Anfield Tuesday night. Goals from Eden Hazard and Raheem Sterling ensured spoils were shared in this Capital One League Cup semifinal. The return leg comes next week at Stamford Bridge (live, Tuesday, 2:45 p.m. ET).

Chelsea’s performance on Tuesday night will raise a few eyebrows. Nicking an early lead but then playing in a dozy style, the league leaders looked awfully jaded against a Liverpool side playing perhaps their best football this season — that Liverpool’s best football resulted in a draw with the league leaders might raise a few eyebrows more.

"A proper semi-final and a fair result. Liverpool did not deserve to lose, they performed really well," Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said after the match. "We were in control but with more quality in our passing we could find space and score more goals."

And to be honest, it was the truth. Hazard sunk his penalty in the 18th minute after a foul conceded by Emre Can. Can, who had been turned inside out by Cesc Fabregas’ driving run to the endline, tried to atone for his mistake in the most clumsiest way imaginable, and Hazard waited for the contact. From the spot, he slotted the ball calmly to the far right corner while Simon Mignolet dove the other way.

But Sterling would level matters on the hour, splitting the Chelsea defense with a 35-yard run to fire home under Courtois. It was a tremendous solo goal but also indicative of a rare mistake by the normally rock-solid Chelsea side. It was also a harbinger of things to come, as Liverpool threw all they had at the Blues, failing to make any further dents. A lot of the credit must go to Courtois, who made a string of superb saves.

As it happens, the League Cup was the first piece of hardware Mourinho collected in his inaugural stint at Stamford Bridge, won in a memorable 3-2 final against Liverpool that also saw the "Special One" sent to the stands for taunting the fans. That trophy spurred Chelsea on to greatness, so it would be somewhat fitting if on Mourinho’s return to London he repeated the feat in this season’s competition. On the evidence, his Chelsea side are the clear front-runners, a team that is built to absorb and counter, and able to grit out the ugliest of wins.

SNAPSHOTS IN TIME

That style is hardly new to Chelsea, who have long played a muscular and occasionally discomfiting game. But this year’s team adds a fair amount of guile and poaching into the mix; with Fabregas and Hazard harrying defenses; Willian spraying the ball about from the middle; and Diego Costa constantly running down goalkeepers’ throats. They are a difficult side to break down, and for all of Liverpool’s slick passing, there was always a suspicion that the Reds’ endeavor masked a lack of ideas.

Liverpool’s last home loss was in November against Chelsea and they came into the match riding an eight-game unbeaten streak. But they had had little success against Chelsea in recent years, most memorably last season when the Reds’ unlikely bid for the title fell apart against the Blues. In fact, Brendan Rodgers has yet to beat his mentor since taking over Liverpool, and he is now winless against Mourinho in six attempts.

Part of the reason Liverpool struggles so much against the top teams is the departure of Luis Suarez for Catalonian pastures. Daniel Sturridge’s continuing injury woes have also denied the Reds a valued runner up top. But a major reason is that Liverpool leave themselves so open, so often, that is hard for even the most tired side not to pull them apart.

But Chelsea looked less tired than a team just going through the motions on Tuesday night, a bunch of guys who looked as if they would rather be anywhere else. Daring Liverpool to attack, and then kicking the ball anywhere but at their own net, Chelsea scored their goal with their only shot on goal in the first half. That lack of attention continued after the break, and with Liverpool upping the pace of their passing and forcing Chelsea to stand back, they forced the Blues to wobble.

Sterling first got Nemanja Matic and John Obi Mikel to cross their signals before loping in free on goal; then Steven Gerrard — so often a weak link this season — nearly scored the go-ahead goal with a composed strike that pinged away off the post and into the ad boards. Courtois was forced into a couple strong stops, forcing Philippe Coutinho wide, stopping Jordan Henderson and then making a truly world-class stop off Adam Lallana’s first-time volley, one-handed, at full stretch.

What that did was turn what had been a slog of a match into a firefight, but it did not earn Liverpool the lead in this tie they so desperately craved.

"I thought we deserved to win the game, we showed wonderful character," a disappointed Rodgers told reporters after the draw. "We went behind to their only shot on target but some of our play, taking the game to Chelsea, was very impressive. It was a wonderful performance and sets up the second leg perfectly."

Rodgers is left still awaiting his first win against his old boss, and there remains a sense that a bad Chelsea is still a more resilient side than a Liverpool at their best.