LONDON: Seven months is a long time in football. Last April Liverpool were chasing the Premier League title until they lost at home to Chelsea. On Saturday they lost again to the Blues but this time it is Chelsea storming ahead at the top of the table with Liverpool nowhere.
After the match Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho had to deal ‘only’ with questions about his side might go through the entire season unbeaten (Modestly, he offered one word: “No”) while Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers was left to explain three defeats in seven days.
The fact that Mourinho was even asked the question ‘only’ in November illustrates the command Chelsea exert over the Premier League, the manner in which they have secured nine wins and two draws, scoring 28 goals and conceding 11.
Arsenal “Invincibles” of 2003-04 went the 38-game season unbeaten. They ended the campaign with 90 points from 26 wins and 12 draws. Chelsea are only 11 games into possibly emulating that feat but it is easy to see why the question is being raised.
Liverpool, even though they took an early lead through Emre Can’s first competitive goal, never looked like spoiling the dream. He was even assisted in scoring by a deflection off Gary Cahill who responded by equalising five minutes later. It verified by goal-line technology after goalkeeper Simon Mignolet could not prevent it crossing the line.
Diego Costa – fit enough to play for Chelsea but not fit enough for Spain – struck the winner, his 10th goal of term, in the 67th minute.
At the final whistle Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard complained vehemently but in vain to referee Anthony Taylor that they should have been awarded a penalty for hands by Cahill. Even Mourinho almost conceded they had a case but was unmoved in his belief that Chelsea had deserved to win.
His players are setting each other standards and some may fail to keep up. After a recent League Cup win over lower-league Shrewsbury, for example, Mourinho singled out Andre Schurrle and Mohamed Salah as two players who need to raise their game.
He had said: “I expect people who have not been playing a lot to raise their level and create [selection] problems for me.”
Neither player was even on the subs’ bench on Saturday. Rodgers must wish for such a happy dilemma. He has yet to win in eight games as a manager against Mourinho. He thought: “We deserved at least a point.” But then, Rodgers said the same after Liverpool lost 1:0 to a half-pace Real Madrid in the Champions League.
The turnaround in the clubs’ fortunes owes much, but not all, to events during the summer. Liverpool lost Luis Suarez, who provided a majority of their goals and assists, while Chelsea strengthened with the signings of Courtois, Costa and Cesc Fabregas.
In signing the impressive Nemanja Matic last January Mourinho also proved that clubs should not necessarily eschew the mid-winter transfer window, unlike Manchester United’s Louis Van Gaal. Matic contributes mightily in midfield to a resolute spine running through Chelsea’s team from Courtois to captain John Terry and on up to Costa.
The Spain striker does not limit his threat to goal-scoring; he also applies irritating pressure on opposing defenders. Liverpool’s Martin Sktrel was the latest rival to be distracted from his football by bad temper.
At one stage Costa’s shirt was ripped down the back but Chelsea were happy to swap a ‘dead shirt’ for the three points.
Rodgers’s team now flounder 15 points behind Chelsea but he remained optimistic. He said: “We have to keep working hard, get some of the injured players back. It’s been a tough week but we’ll go away for the international break and we’ll be ready then for Crystal Palace.”
That should be the least of their ambitions.