Just hours after Manchester City had beaten Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, Liverpool did their bit to keep the Premier League title race alive by seeing off Chelsea 2-0 at Anfield thanks to a header from Sadio Mane and a long-range stunner from Mohamed Salah.
Preamble to this game was predictably dominated by the events of five years ago when Steven Gerrard’s costly slip in this very fixture resulted in the momentum of the title race being shifted from Merseyside to Manchester, with City running out winners in the end.
It was a defining moment of not only that season but the Premier League era and as much as Jurgen Klopp was quick to dismiss its relevance in his pre-match comments, the similarities between that game and this were impossible to ignore.
Fate had it that City had exactly the same fixture as they had in 2014 away at Palace and just like in that game, they ran out winners by a two-goal margin with Raheem Sterling, a key member of Liverpool’s last title-challenging side, scoring twice. The pressure had been ramped up even more.
Following an impeccable minute’s silence to mark the 30th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, the game got underway. If there were any nerves in the Liverpool side pre-match, they weren’t evident in the opening stages as they flew out of the blocks to put Chelsea under immediate pressure with all four corners of Anfield roaring them on.
Chelsea, for a team beaten in their previous three away games to top six opponents by a scoreline of 11-1 prior to this game, actually weathered the storm pretty well and their confidence was emphasised when David Luiz, under considerable pressure from Roberto Firmino outside his own penalty area, played a no-look pass with his weaker left foot to start an attacking move in motion three minutes in.
Even so, with Liverpool there is always the chance that a swift gear change will carve open an opposition defence no matter how resolutely they are keeping them at bay and that happened with six minutes gone as Sadio Mane sped down the left and dinked a cross to Mohamed Salah whose volley was comfortably stopped by Kepa.
Whereas Liverpool’s front three had each other to bounce off in Chelsea’s half, Eden Hazard, starting in a false 9 role, cut a rather isolated figure during the early exchanges. Leading the line in a team designed for counter-attacking against arguably the best defender in the world in Virgil Van Dijk isn’t exactly the most enticing role, yet Hazard showed what he was about 20 minutes in when he made a half-chance for himself inside the box, only to see Alisson gather his tame shot with ease.
The teams exchanged half-chances until the interval, Jordan Henderson seeing a shot deflected over the bar, Willian spurning a fast Chelsea break with a wild shot off target and Mane bouncing a curler off the stanchion behind the goal. However, an Antonio Rudiger injury aside, it was Chelsea who would have enjoyed the opening 45 minutes more than their hosts. So far, so good for Sarri at the interval.
Chelsea’s safety first set-up offered proof that as in 2014, they were keen to play the role of party poopers at Anfield once more. Maurizio Sarri is a romantic compared to the pragmatic Jose Mourinho, but this was a temporary abandonment of his principles: Chelsea came to Anfield with the intention of not conceding and hoping to nick something on the counter-attack.
Unfortunately for Sarri, his gameplan was undone five minutes into the second half. Henderson, who has been playing noticably higher up the pitch in recent weeks, provided a moment of inspiration, springing into the box before dinking a cross to the back post for Mane to head into an open goal. The deadlock was broken, the angst on the terraces had subsided and Chelsea’s approach had been cut to ribbons. Should Liverpool go on to clinch the title, few members of their squad will have made such a vital contribution to their win than Mane.
The Senegalese had to take a back seat during Salah’s record-obliterating debut campaign, but this term, the pair have been equals in terms of their importance and output. This was Mane’s 18th Premier League goal of the campaign and took him to 21 in all competitions, marking his best-ever return in English football.
Just 142 seconds later, it was 2-0. Salah, who started in that infamous fixture five years ago in Chelsea blue rather than Liverpool red, had looked lively throughout and there was a sense of inevitability that it was he who doubled the lead.
Receiving the ball on the right wing, Salah jinked inside before unleashing an unstoppable drive from the edge of the box that flew beyond Kepa’s desperate, outstretched dive and into the top corner of the net. It was a wonder-goal out of nothing that prompted a trademark Martin Tyler shriek in Sky Sports’ commentary box.
You know it’s a big moment when that happens. As Salah lapped up the acclaim of his teammates and supporters alike, it was difficult to imagine a route back into the game for Chelsea. Instead, forced into a tactical reshuffle, they belatedly started to play more expansively and they were the width of the post away from coming back into it when Hazard latched onto a long ball from deep before sliding an effort onto the foot of the woodwork with only Alisson to beat.
Less than a minute later he forced the Brazilian into a save from another big opening. Hazard hasn’t passed up too many golden opportunities to score in what has been his most productive season to date and the fact that he missed two gilt-edged chances in as many minutes was yet another instance that made you wonder whether the stars are aligning for Liverpool this season.
Five years ago, Brendan Rodgers and his team of swashbuckling entertainers allowed themselves to get too swept up in it all. A draw against Chelsea would have been enough to keep them ahead of City with two games remaining yet their ambition proved to be their undoing.
Liverpool’s supporters, desperate for an end to so many years without a title, were also guilty of allowing their emotions to get the better of them, creating a Carnival atmosphere along the Anfield Road that Mark Schwarzer has since admitted inspired Chelsea to go and beat their team that afternoon.
This time around, everyone connected with the club has been far more measured. Despite the odd scare, Liverpool controlled this game from start to finish, remained patient when the scorelines were level and then ground out a crucial victory that leaves them in an excellent position to go on and win the title. Of course, City remain in the driving seat.
Should Pep Guardiola’s men win all of their remaining fixtures the title will be there’s but with games against Manchester United and Spurs to come, it will be far from straightforward. Liverpool certainly have the easier run-in of the two sides, on paper at least. Should they go on to complete the job, this result will be looked back upon as a hugely significant one. Liverpool have exercised their demons against Chelsea and in doing so have passed their final big test of the campaign.