So that "worst-case scenario" I mentioned before the Manchester City game has indeed come to pass; Liverpool have gone from being top at Christmas to fifth going into the New Year. It isn't a massive shock and it shouldn't change how the team are perceived. No re-assessment of Liverpool's ambitions is required at this point, as two narrow, contentious defeats at the most difficult venues in English football do not make the Reds any less of a side than they were on Christmas Day, when they sat on top of the pile.
Nevertheless, they have dropped out of the top four and need to get back to winning ways quickly. Losing at Manchester City and Chelsea is almost to be expected and anything gained from those fixtures would have been a bonus, so from that point of view there's no real harm done. In fact there are a number of positives to be taken from the two losses. I'd describe it as short-term pain but long-term gain. The losses hurt, no question about that, but Liverpool have shown over the Christmas period that they can hang with the best and should take great heart from their efforts.
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- Brewin: Three Things - Chelsea v Liverpool
- Report: Chelsea rock Reds at the Bridge
Having two such difficult games in a four-day period was always going to test Liverpool's resources to the limit, and seeing Brendan Rodgers having to send a rookie left-back on to try and salvage something against Chelsea tells you everything you need to know about the lack of depth presently at his disposal. And yet they so nearly got something from the game and have every right to feel aggrieved that they didn't.
The loss at Stamford Bridge really hurts because of the injustice of it. For all Rodgers' complaints about referee Lee Mason on Boxing Day, Liverpool were beaten fairly and squarely by City. Yes, they played well and deserved at least a point, but they didn't get it due to not taking their chances, giving away bad goals and generally not having a great deal of luck. The linesman didn't help, either, but that's not Mason's fault and personally I was a little surprised that Rodgers spoke out as he did.
The FA may yet decide to take action against Rodgers for his comments on Mason, but whatever punishment they hand out will pale into insignificance compared to that dished out by Howard Webb at Stamford Bridge. Mason was poor on Boxing Day but he didn't especially influence the outcome of the game. Webb's decisions, or lack thereof, most certainly did.
Samuel Eto'o scored the winning goal but should not have even been on the pitch to do so, having caught Jordan Henderson with a knee-high lunge that was so late you'll struggle to even find the ball in any still photographs of the incident. Astonishingly, Webb failed to even produce a yellow card for that one. It shouldn't matter if it's the first minute or the last, a studs-up lunge at a player's knee is a red card. Unless it's a Liverpool player, it seems (Kevin Mirallas at Goodison anyone?).
Liverpool scored from the free kick so there was at least some measure of justice, but Henderson's incredulous look and continued protests to Webb told its own story. Despite the leniency of Webb, that was a dream start for Liverpool, but just as against City on Boxing Day, they couldn't hold onto the lead and found themselves trailing at the break.
Chelsea overpowered the Reds in the first half; they had too much pace and strength and Liverpool looked vulnerable up the middle. Whilst both Chelsea goals owed much to fortuitous ricochets that fell kindly to their players, there's no question they were good value for their lead and Liverpool's performance looked understandably leggy and jaded. Some teams can rest six or seven players, Liverpool were struggling to field 11 senior players.
The second half saw a significant improvement from Rodgers' men -- no doubt aided by Jose Mourinho's inherent cautiousness when leading -- but the luck they needed to make their territorial dominance count simply wasn't there. Mamadou Sakho headed against the crossbar whilst Luis Suarez was denied two penalty shots by Webb. The first one was the kind of decision that can go either way, but John Terry was certainly clumsy and reckless and on another day (with another referee?) could have been punished.
The second one, however, was absolutely blatant. It was stupid, too, as Eto'o had no need to take out Suarez, but take him out he did. And Webb was looking straight at it. How can he look at that incident and award nothing? We'll never know because he doesn't have to explain himself, which is probably a good thing as I highly doubt anything he would have to say would ease the fury felt by Liverpool fans. If anything, it would likely add to it.
It's a mark of how much Suarez has cooled his temper this season that he didn't react more strongly than he did, as it was a scandalous no call by the referee.
It's not been a good Christmas period for the Reds as not only have they been on the wrong end of two close defeats, but almost every other result has gone against them, too. Only Sunderland's surprise win at Everton on Boxing Day bucked the trend, as all of Liverpool's other rivals for the top four collected maximum points. The gap between the Reds and the leaders is now six points, whilst the gap between them and both Spurs and Manchester United is now just two. As encouraging as the football was at the Etihad and as pleasing as the battling spirit was at Stamford Bridge, the league table sure looks a lot less healthy from a Liverpool perspective as it did less than a week ago.
The good news for Kopites is that it gets a lot easier from here on in, as almost all of the toughest away games are out of the way and all of Liverpool's rivals (bar Manchester United) now have to visit Anfield, so there is plenty of opportunity to make up the ground lost over the Christmas period. The bad news is that an already thin squad is now beginning to look positively anorexic. Daniel Sturridge, Jose Enrique, Jon Flanagan and Steven Gerrard look set to be joined on the sidelines now by Sakho and Joe Allen after both limped off against Chelsea.
Rodgers revealed afterward that Allen and Henderson both went into the game carrying injuries but had to play as Liverpool have virtually no other viable alternatives. Sixteen-year-old Jordan Rossiter was on the bench and may be needed in the coming weeks, and an already pressing need for new signings in January has taken on even more added importance now. It would help, too, if Glen Johnson remembered that he's an international class full-back and stopped playing like a fan who has won a competition to turn out for his favourite team. Actually that's unfair -- a fan would look more interested.
Rodgers oddly stated afterward that "Howard was excellent." I'm surprised he even managed to get the words out given how firmly lodged his tongue must have been in his cheek when he said it.