Chelsea and Liverpool 'poles apart' in Premier League race

By Phil McNultyChief football writer
Liverpool v Chelsea
Liverpool are now 15 points behind Premier League leaders Chelsea

While Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho was fending off inquiries about whether his side could be the latest "Invincible" to go a Premier League season unbeaten, Liverpool's Brendan Rodgers was handling an inquisition about a third loss in seven days.

The mood swings could not have been more different as Chelsea's 2-1 win at Liverpool kept them in pole position in the early title running and left last season's runners-up struggling to halt a slide.

So what were the main talking points from this game of contrasts?

606 debate: Why are Liverpool on the slide?

Poles apart

The journey has only taken 195 days - but in this short time results and events have conspired to send Chelsea and Liverpool in polar opposite directions.

When Chelsea last won at Anfield on 27 April, it ended Liverpool's 11-game winning sequence that took them to the edge of the Premier League title on a tidal wave of dazzling football and fan fervour.

Since that day things have never been quite the same for Brendan Rodgers' side while Chelsea manager Mourinho has corrected the flaws in their make-up and restored them to the status of title favourites.

Liverpool lost their great talisman and world-class striker Luis Suarez after his World Cup biting shame while Chelsea struck swiftly in the markets to sign striker Diego Costa and bring Cesc Fabregas back to the Premier League from Barcelona.

Premier League form since last meeting in April 2014 between the sides (13 games)

Rodgers used the £75m he received for Suarez to bolster his squad and add the big gamble of £16m Mario Balotelli - and the current status of both policies was placed starkly in front of Anfield on Saturday.

Chelsea looked united, a team that almost begs the quote "same as last week" from Mourinho. Round pegs in round holes, quality and strength the hallmarks.

Liverpool look a disjointed collection of parts, perhaps understandable given the scale of reconstruction of their squad, a team that has lost its way and the intensity that pressed so many opponents into submission last season.

Former England winger Chris Waddle, at Anfield for BBC Radio 5 live, said: "Brendan Rodgers doesn't know what his best team is or what his best system is."

The post-Suarez period of transition has not been helped by injury to Daniel Sturridge. The pair scored 52 goals between them last season and any team would miss that.

Whereas Costa and Fabregas have slipped seamlessly into Chelsea's team, Liverpool's newcomers have not hit their stride.

Dejan Lovren has been unconvincing since his £20m move from Southampton, while his former colleagues at St Mary's Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert only made the bench against Chelsea.

Emre Can at least scored via a deflection but Balotelli was again anonymous.

Can Chelsea be the new 'Invincibles'?

The question will be asked with increasing regularity and the pattern of denial from Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho is also emerging - but it remains a valid inquiry nonetheless.

Can Chelsea emulate the Arsenal "Invincibles" of 2003-04, who went the 38-game Premier League season unbeaten?

The Gunners ended that season 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 spectre is being raised.

Arsenal players celebrate winning the Premier League in May 2004
Arsenal became the first team since Preston North End in 1888-89 to go through an entire season unbeaten

Mourinho is having none of it, saying after the 2-1 win at Liverpool: "No. It is possible to be champions but in modern football, especially in the Premier League, I don't believe in that unbeaten run."

Expectation management? Chelsea have now played four of what could easily be termed their toughest away games, with victories at Everton - by a crushing 6-3 margin - and at Liverpool and 1-1 draws at Manchester City and Manchester United, twice being denied the win by late equalisers.

Chelsea were outstanding at Liverpool. Unmoved by Emre Can's deflected early goal, they simply kept playing until victory came courtesy of Gary Cahill and Costa.

Chelsea's defensive resilience is renowned, while Nemanja Matic is a magnificent physical and footballing screen alongside Fabregas in midfield.

And what about Costa? An old school powerhouse of a striker, seemingly happy to cause a rumpus in an empty room. He will fall foul off officialdom this season but what an aggressive edge he has given Chelsea, both in physical exchanges and with the ball.

Mourinho may wave away the question, but this looks the complete Premier League team. Not easy to see anyone beating them and they will feel even more confident after Manchester City were held 2-2 at QPR.

Rodgers' gamble backfires

Liverpool manager Rodgers made the rod for his own back when he fielded that unfamiliar line-up against Real Madrid in the Champions League and lost.

When the team-sheets landed and Rodgers had made seven changes from the Bernabeu - but only one from the loss at Newcastle - the truth was out there.

The Chelsea game was the priority all along, and this was a "must win" game for Rodgers if he was to avoid further questions.

Liverpool's team to play Real Madrid
Liverpool made seven changes to the starting XI against Real Madrid

Kolo Toure had a case for selection ahead of the struggling Lovren while Lallana could also count himself unlucky to be excluded.

Even after this 2-1 defeat, Liverpool's third in a week, Rodgers was unrepentant: "I wouldn't do anything differently at all. We just didn't get the results."

Rodgers also insisted his squad were fully apprised of how the situation would pan out after he mixed and matched his selections.

The bottom line, however, is that when a match is prioritised as obviously as this one was, then defeat is the sign of a failed plan.

What now for Liverpool?

This is a very different Liverpool from the one that cut a swathe through the Premier League last season, blowing away quality opponents in a blaze of attacking football.

Liverpool were ponderous going forward, short on confidence and devoid of the intensity that is the trademark of Rodgers' work.

It is a nonsense to suggest Rodgers should be under any sort of pressure. This is the manager who almost guided Liverpool to their first title in 24 years.

Daniel Sturridge (right) is congratulated by former teammate Luis Suarez after scoring a goal
Rodgers admits Liverpool are struggling without the goals from Luis Suarez who joined Barcelona in the summer and Daniel Sturridge who was injured with England in September

Liverpool are a shadow of that team and many factors are at work. The loss of Suarez has robbed them of not simply a footballing edge on opponents but a psychological one. With the removal of the sheer fear he used to inflict on teams, Liverpool are more comfortable to play against.

They also have a raft of new signings getting used to life at Liverpool and there would be no surprise if there is also a psychological hangover from getting so close to the title before losing it when they could almost reach out and touch the trophy.

Liverpool and their fans may now be realising that last season was the great missed opportunity, cruel after all the brilliant football that decorated the season.

There must now be a repositioning of the goals Liverpool might have had in mind before the start of the season.

Forget the title. Gone. They will not make up 15 points on Chelsea. So next in line must be a place in the top four, which is still in Liverpool's grasp if they can get Sturridge fit and restore confidence.

A top four place and a trophy can be considered success for Liverpool this season. Rodgers is getting plenty of criticism currently but he was also responsible for moving them ahead of schedule last season - another Champions League place would not be failure.


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