On Sunday afternoon Chelsea went to Liverpool and blew the Premier League title chase wide open again. It could have been Liverpool’s coronation had they won their twelfth game in a row. Instead Chelsea, with a weakened, but not weak, team, won 2-0 and played themselves back into the hunt, after the inexplicable loss at home to Sunderland the weekend before. More to the point, it puts Man City in the driving seat again, after their assured victory at Crystal Palace. They are the latest team who will win the League if they win their remaining games (though the maths is currently based on their superior goal difference).
It was a masterful tactical performance by Chelsea. Their defence and midfield sat deep, denying the Liverpool speedsters the room they’d had in earlier victories, notably over Arsenal. Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers, compounded the problem by playing the star of the moment, Raheem Sterling, wide right. Presumably this was to put pressure on Ashley Cole, Chelsea’s left back, who hasn’t been selected for many games this year. It didn’t work. Cole was as assured as ever and Liverpool missed Sterling’s movement and passing at the tip of the midfield diamond. He moved inside in the second half, but too late. The die was cast, Chelsea’s confidence boosted by a late first half goal by Demba Ba, after a catastrophic slip by Steven Gerrard, of all people.
Liverpool continued to retain most of the possession in the second half. At the end of the game the stats showed that they had 72%, against Chelsea’s 28%. And yet they had few clear chances on goal, and Chelsea always looked dangerous on the break. Steven Gerrard, distraught at his earlier mistake, lost his head a bit, and tried to win the game with a succession of hopeful long shots. Luis Suarez, starved of space and without the usual fleet-footed support of Sturridge for much of the game, had a quiet match. And Chelsea, cruelly, rubbed it in at the last, as Willian pounced on a misplaced pass, put Torres through, and then gratefully received the return pass for a simple tap in. 2-0. Fortress Anfield breached by the team always the most likely to.
Afterwards the reaction was predictably hysterical. Brendan Rodgers complained, with maybe a bit of tongue-in-cheek, of Chelsea parking two buses in front of goal. That has prompted an absurd debate on the airwaves and in the papers about whether Chelsea, marshalled by the master of the managerial dark arts, Jose Mourinho, are bad for football. Of course they played deep against Liverpool! That’s the Liverpool who have won eleven games on the trot, ripping teams apart by getting behind their defensive lines with their pace and razor-sharp passing. Man City, Arsenal, Man Utd, Tottenham, included. The lesson, at this point in the season, was surely that Liverpool couldn’t be outdone at their own game, that in a trade for goals, they’d come out on top. So yes, Mourinho parked a bus, or even two. But his side also knew when to break, to pounce, and did it ruthlessly.
After watching Saracen’s defensive brilliance in the Heineken Cup semi final against Clermont on Saturday (see my Sportsthoughts 100) this was another master class. Of course we all love the marauding attacking games of Liverpool, Man City and Arsenal at their best. But football is also about defending, and usually the team with the strongest defence – or close to it – wins the League. If Liverpool do win it this season – and I hope they do – it will be contrary to the norm, for their defending has been pretty flaky at times.
So no, Chelsea aren’t bad for football. They are part of the rich tapestry. Mourinho is a genius, but not evil. Pragmatic, unromantic, yes. But clever, imaginative, strategic and great value for the media. One of the great characters. As someone asked on Twitter yesterday, who wouldn’t want Mourinho managing their club? If they were really, really honest? Even Arsenal fans. In fact, especially Arsenal fans.
Of course he is sometimes a hypocrite. When West Ham parked their rather rickety bus at Stamford Bridge a couple of months ago and eked out a 0-0 draw (which set them off on the revival that saved the season) Mourinho accused them of playing “19th century football”. A memorable insult, if historically inaccurate, as teams played with seven or eight attackers in those days. The difference was that West Ham’s ambition was the 0-0, whereas Chelsea were lying in wait yesterday, ready to break, to win the game on the counter. As they did.
So hail the mighty Jose. Good luck against Atletico Madrid on Wednesday in the second leg of the Champions League semi final. 0-0 after the first leg in Spain, where the proverbial autobus was also in evidence.
And hail Brendan Rodgers too, for transforming Liverpool into the most exciting team in the Premier League. If there is justice in this footballing world, they will be English champions this season.
(Both photos from Google Images. Jose Mourinho, via the Guardian, photographer Paul McFegan/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar)