The first clash between two of the four teams many see as the most serious contenders for the Premier League title took place on Saturday at Anfield, as Liverpool and Chelsea shared the spoils. Kai Havertz produced a fine header from a Reece James corner to break the deadlock in the 22nd minute, and Mohamed Salah equalized from the penalty spot in the final moments of the first half, after James earned a red card for handling the ball on the goal-line.
Van Dijk or Lukaku?
Looking ahead to this match, most media in England focused on the battles between Virgil van Dijk and Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian striker is back in the English top flight, widely (and rightly) considered as one of the best in the world in his position, while the Dutch centre-back returned at the start of the season after missing 10 months of football having suffered a severe knee injury in October last year.
It’s fair to say that the Liverpool defender came out on top when it came to their individual clashes. Van Dijk dealt without major problems with everything Lukaku threw his way, and that’s saying a lot. Lukaku is a very complete striker; he’s big and strong, great in the air, extremely quick and mobile for his size, skilled with the ball at his feet, with a great eye for the goal, and very good in linking up with the players around him. However, Van Dijk matched him in every single area, never letting him cause any harm when the pair of them were close to each other.
Probably aware of the quality of the Netherlands captain, Lukaku often drifted from his central position to the left, where he had hoped to come up against Joel Matip rather than Van Dijk, and the strategy worked well on a few occasions in the first half when he managed to get the better of the Cameroonian, though without tangible result. But in the second half, Matip raised his level significantly and it became increasingly difficult for Lukaku to do anything, especially with his team reduced to 10 men.
There was one great chance he almost made count when Marcos Alonso headed the ball down to him on the edge of six yards, but Matip was in the right place and produced a vital block on his volley.
All in all, Lukaku did nothing wrong all game, but the quality of the Liverpool centre-back duo proved too much for him on this occasion.
Chelsea hold on
Liverpool dominated possession throughout the match. Even in the first half, the ball spent more time at their feet and in Chelsea’s half of the pitch, and it understandably got worse for the visitors after James got his matching orders.
Expecting his team to be pushed back hard in the second half, Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel brought on Thiago Silva for Havertz to strengthen the back line, moving captain Cezar Azpilicueta out wide to the right and organizing a five-man back line, with Mateo Kovacic (on for N’Golo Kante), Jorginho and Mason Mount sitting directly in front. That obviously left Lukaku as the only man upfront in what became an extremely defensive 5-3-1 setup.
The number of Liverpool shots towards Edouard Mendy’s goal understandably grew apace as time went on, but there was very little the home team could do to break through such close defensive ranks. Whenever any of their formidable attackers was turned towards the goal with the ball at his feet, there was a practically impenetrable wall of blue shirts ahead. Going wide through their fullbacks didn’t work either, as the three Chelsea centre-backs dealt easily with every cross that came in.
In the end, the combination of fine organization, determination to avoid defeat, individual quality of the players and a few street-wise moments at the very end, were enough to see the visitors take a point back to London. It was a group effort, and Chelsea certainly haven’t done harm to their title credentials with this result, even though there is a very long way to go yet.
Liverpool pale upfront
But regardless of the fierceness of the Chelsea defence, it should be said that Liverpool looked far from their best in the final third. They seemed to be lacking ideas, making wrong choices more often than not, and they simply couldn’t find a way through. It was a mark of the Liverpool team in the early days of Jurgen Klopp that they struggled against such low blocks, but in the last couple of seasons they had obviously found ways to deal with it as they strode to the Premier League title in 2019-20.
This time, however, they looked like the Liverpool of old – no problems in winning the ball in the middle of the park through high pressing, but not knowing exactly what to do with it once they had it. Some would argue that they lack a player who can produce a moment of magic in those situations, like a spectacular strike from range or a cunning, defence-splitting pass.
They tried blasting from range on a few occasions, most notably Fabinho and Van Dijk, but Mendy in the Chelsea goal was up to the task.
Klopp will not have been happy with what his team showed in that second half attack-wise, though it should be said he was bereft of the option to utilize all four of his attackers – something he probably would have done – due to Roberto Firmino going off with a hamstring problem in the 43rd minute.
Harvey Elliott takes the next step
Without Georginio Wijnaldum in their ranks, Liverpool chose not to sign a replacement and Klopp is obviously counting on youngsters like Harvey Elliott and Curtis Jones to make a contribution in midfield this term. There is also Naby Keita, a high-quality player whose time at Anfield has so far been riddled with injuries, but now he looks completely fit.
Elliott started the previous match against Burnley, and many were surprised to see the 18-year-old named again, particularly with the likes Keita and Thiago Alcantara available. With all due respect to the Clarets, Chelsea are obviously a different proposition altogether, and a more experienced player was expected in the role.
Nonetheless, Klopp stuck with Elliott and the youngster did not disappoint. He didn’t look remotely out of his depth against top players like Jorginho, Kante or Kovacic. He showed determination to prove himself a proper part of this team, and he came very close to scoring his first Premier League goal with a low effort from just outside the box that whizzed just wide of the post early on.
If there was any doubt about the Liverpool boss unearthing a gem in this boy, it’s probably gone now. At the age of 18, Elliott is a player that can be counted on to start for an elite team, even against elite opposition.
The most obvious effect of this match on the Premier League table is that no team has managed to win the first three games, though Tottenham Hotspur will have a chance to do so and break to the top when they meet Watford in North London later today (Sunday).
Manchester City destroyed a 10-men Arsenal, but their defeat to Spurs in the opening round still has them a point short of Liverpool and Chelsea. Manchester United will have a chance to draw level with them on Sunday by beating Wolverhampton Wanderers at the Molineux.
As for Liverpool and Chelsea, the matches between these teams are often rightly placed in the category of blockbusters, and this game certainly delivered with quality football, excitement, controversy and passion. On the other hand, it’s consistency that usually wins titles in most leagues. Chelsea’s chances wouldn’t have suffered greatly had they lost, and the same can be of Liverpool at this point.
But in this game, the result seems a fair one. There are some who disagree with the decision of referee Anthony Taylor to send off James, and there can be very little doubt that we’d have seen a more balanced second half had it not been that way. However, when a player uses his arm to get the ball off the goal-line, the referee has no choice and for the incredulous look on his face as he saw the red card go up, James knew what he’d done.
Liverpool dominated the game and that in itself shows it would have been harsh for them to lose. On the other hand, the sheer resilience of Chelsea in the second half definitely warrants leaving the stadium with something. It will feel like an opportunity lost for Liverpool, and it certainly was.
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