Sunday, November 11, 2012
Twin pariahs take centre-stage
John Brewin, Stamford Bridge
The headlines go to John Terry and Luis Suarez, and for largely footballing reasons too. A goal each for the two most vilified players in the English game had Suarez cancelling out Terry. The Uruguayan's header mirrored that of Chelsea's captain in being scored from a corner kick, but that Terry was not around to clear up the danger could end up as the most significant item to emerge from an encounter that offered tension over quality.
Blog: Failure to finish costly
A first-half collision between the pair rendered Terry almost motionless, his only movements reflecting a clear agony. The obvious seriousness of the injury had the effect of briefly cooling off hostilities, and thereafter Chelsea were not quite the force they had previously been.
Had Juan Mata buried what looked a thoroughly convertible chance in first-half injury time, then Chelsea might have been out of sight, but Liverpool came back and might even have nicked a win late on. Twice Petr Cech made saves: first denying Suarez's surge and then a Jose Enrique shot in injury time.
"We'll have to wait until tomorrow for the MRI scan," said Roberto Di Matteo of his fallen leader. "We just got him back into the team and it was great to see him lead the team out there. When a player reacts like that, we hope that it's not serious."
The disappointment was Chelsea's; unease deepened by fears for Terry. The credit lay with Liverpool for staying power and determination. Brendan Rodgers' tactics had been laid out to disrupt Chelsea's flow, and they paid off, even after a glaring error of organisation and a first half where he admitted his team had been a "wee bit tentative".
If Rodgers is painted as the footballing idealist, then Roberto Di Matteo is usually seen as a pragmatist, but this was a clear role reversal. Chelsea's Champions League triumph was achieved via tactics that placed horses for courses, with players like Salomon Kalou and Ryan Bertrand ploughing furrows as a means to an end. The current Di Matteo has thrown caution to the wind with the repeated fielding of a trio of playmakers for whom defensive work is a necessary evil at best. Rodgers set out to blunt them.
Liverpool's better performances this season have often come when he has had to jiggle his tactics, as against Manchester City, Everton and for much of the game against Manchester United. A 3-5-2/5-3-2 formation that later varied to other permutations including 4-2-3-1 eventually squeezed the midfield successfully. Such paradigm shifts can be upended by individual errors and the bald fact that Chelsea had better personnel to call on, but this was not to be a twinkling trio's day.
Brendan the tiki-taka evangelist would surely love to have Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar in his ranks. Roman Abramovich may admit in his more reflective moments that he would rather have Suarez than Fernando Torres. Despite the £50 million man playing with the determination of someone with something to prove to Liverpool, he was substituted without a goal to his name. He is still yet to score against his old club or convince as a Chelsea player.
Twinned as pariahs, Terry and Suarez were booed when they touched the ball by the opposition's fans, a reminder of the regrettable moral mazes that both clubs have found themselves embroiled in. Terry's fleeting presence was key. On returning to action after his racism ban, he headed Chelsea into the lead. There was no marking whatsoever as he powered in Mata's cross. Whichever system of zonal or man-marking was being employed - and it was difficult to tell - this was malpractice from Liverpool.
The captain's celebration exhibited barely contained rage, and a keen sense of vindication. If there is a quality to be admired in Terry it is his determination in adversity and he will have to overcome yet more after the collision with Suarez. The Liverpool man was blameless; Ramires had baulked the Uruguayan. As Terry left the field, he took his hands from his eyes to glance at Di Matteo. For once, his face was a picture of uncertainty and vulnerability; the comeback had lasted 35 minutes, and he will probably not be seen for some time.
Soon after, Mata cut through a lagging Liverpool backline to open up his golden chance to shoot. His effort ended in the Shed End and a chance to put a possibly unassailable lead into Liverpool was gone. Liverpool's possession game had previously offered little in the way of entertainment or the creation of chances. Having set out to contain, Rodgers' tactics needed to shift, since Nuri Sahin's shot wide had been almost their sole effort of the first half.
"We knew we needed to score a second goal," said Di Matteo. "That was crucial to kill the game off. 1-0 is a dangerous result."
The second period saw Rodgers emerge as a constant and nervous presence on the sideline. He is a prodigious whistler, but there was also plenty of clapping and vocal encouragement. Having been initially over-manned in midfield, Chelsea's technicians had looked to have won the central battle, with Ramires and John Obi Mikel having the better of it against Joe Allen and Sahin but, eventually, Rodgers hit on a working formula.
Steven Gerrard is no longer quite the driving force that Chelsea twice tried to buy in the Jose Mourinho era, but his experience pulled his younger colleagues back, though an even older presence in Jamie Carragher was yet more influential. Andre Wisdom and Daniel Agger were ordered around the defensive line throughout. Carragher's influence grew as the game went on, even though he often looks as if his creaky gait would qualify him for membership of the Chelsea Pensioners.
"I'm delighted for our young players," said Rodgers. "But Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Daniel Agger, and Glen Johnson are having to dig deeper for us this season."
And it was Carragher's flick from a Suso corner that placed Suarez in a position to head the equaliser. Ageing legs but a keen brain had outfought and out-thought a Chelsea team who had wearied and eventually lost belief, and who now fear the worst for their own inspirational defender.