Three Things: Liverpool vs. Chelsea
Demba Ba's first-half goal and Willian's injury-time strike gave Chelsea a stunning 2-0 win over Liverpool at Anfield. Here are three things from their Premier League clash:
1. Chelsea take the crown off Liverpool's heads
The temptation is to call Chelsea the "party poopers," but the significance of this win means they were much more than that. They were the men who arrived at a coronation intent on grabbing the crown before it could be placed on anyone else's head.
The permutations had been simple. The title was Liverpool's to lose. They had won their 11 previous games. A 12th successive victory would end Chelsea’s remote chances and take them nearer the 100-goal mark. As they were facing a weakened side whose focus was on another competition, they seemed unstoppable.
Not any longer. There are three title contenders again. Rather than cruising to glory, Liverpool are being put under pressure. Some 200 miles further south, Manchester City's Manuel Pellegrini received assistance from his old enemy, Jose Mourinho. Now Crystal Palace and Newcastle, Liverpool's remaining opponents, have been handed a blueprint of how to stop Brendan Rodgers' team.
Few specialise in such defiant displays like Chelsea. It was a reminder that, beneath all the incessant controversy, Mourinho is a brilliant manager. Tactically, his side was outstanding. The game plan was executed to perfection. Indeed, it was reminiscent of Chelsea's approach when they beat City at the Etihad Stadium in February.
This, however, was achieved with a very different starting 11. There was no Petr Cech, John Terry, Ramires, Eden Hazard or Samuel Eto'o. Gary Cahill and Willian were used as substitutes, but their deputies were dependable. Their resolve was unwavering. And Liverpool, unusually for them, were below par. For the first time since November, they failed to score.
2. Gerrard lets it slip
"We do not let it slip." Steven Gerrard's words on the Anfield turf, minutes after the win against Manchester City a fortnight earlier, came to mind again. This time, Gerrard both slipped and let it slip.
He failed to control Mamadou Sakho's pass at the end of the first half, allowing Demba Ba to run clear on goal and put Chelsea into the lead. For some, it brought reminders of another assist for a Blues goal, when his disastrous back-pass sent Didier Drogba in to score at Anfield in 2010. Then, however, the silverware was being contested by Manchester United and Chelsea. Some among the Liverpool fans were not distraught at an uncharacteristic error. They deemed Chelsea the lesser of the evils. Sunday's mistake was different. It was undeniably harsh. More than perhaps anyone else, Gerrard had held his nerve in recent weeks. He had scored the pressure penalties at Fulham, Manchester United and West Ham. He had led by example. He is the man many a neutral would like to see lift the Premier League trophy, the supreme culmination of a career that began in 1998. Now there is the possibility he will retire without the medal that has always eluded him.
He needed no reminders of the cost of this aberration. Gerrard was typically prominent in his attempts to make amends. He had a series of second-half shots, mainly aimed at Mark Schwarzer. There was no addition to his list of rescue acts, no dramatic goal. Instead, Chelsea kept a clean sheet. They have a better defensive record than Liverpool and have made far fewer individual errors this season.
The tactical point is that Gerrard's new, deeper role means such blunders can carry a greater cost. There are fewer teammates behind him if he loses the ball; in this case, there was only goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.
Chelsea's opening goal was typical of Liverpool's 2014 formation, with Gerrard dropping in between the centre-backs to act as the quarterback. For three months, he had been almost flawless as the very deep-lying playmaker. Until this.
3. Kalas exceeds expectations
If it was billed as the game of the Premier League season, it was certainly true for one man. Tomas Kalas finally took the field, in the 36th game, away at Anfield and aware that Chelsea's slender title chances would end with defeat. Oh, and his immediate opponent was Luis Suarez. The temptation was to wish the young Czech good luck; surely he would need it.
It promised to be the most unfair of contests: a 30-goal forward against the logical weak link. Instead, the newcomer emerged triumphant. It was an unlikely tale. Neither of Kalas' two previous Chelsea appearances came in England's top division. Neither began before the 89th minute either.
He was a rookie, albeit, in Chelsea fashion, an expensive rookie. Kalas was signed for 5.2 million pounds in 2010. There were also signs of why they had invested so much money in him.
The defender illustrated his pace and generally looked assured. He made a couple of minor misjudgements -- a missed header brought cheers at Anfield and a nudge on Raheem Sterling led to calls for a penalty -- but the major error came at the other end, from Gerrard. Kalas could have even broken the deadlock, meeting Frank Lampard's header but applying a glancing touch when he needed to make a more emphatic connection.
The key to his defensive duties came in the men around him. Mourinho tried to ensure the newcomer was not isolated. He has long favoured tight, compact formations where a central defender is less likely to be exposed. It is a ploy that has helped the far more experienced Terry, whose lack of pace means he prefers to patrol a smaller area.
A narrow back four and a low block of three defensive midfielders meant a seven-man structure was erected in front of 41-year-old Schwarzer’s goal.
Liverpool just could not break them down.