It had felt the sort of comment that could backfire when voiced. It threatened to prove a rash, incorrect prediction. “We cannot go lower,” Jurgen Klopp had said in the aftermath of Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to Wolves.
But it seemed Liverpool could when David Luiz, with the improvisational brilliance to embarrass Simon Mignolet, gave Chelsea the lead. It appeared they could, too, when Diego Costa approached the penalty spot with purpose, seemingly set to restore the league leaders’ advantage. Instead, Mignolet provided the improbable rescue act, parrying the penalty, sparing Liverpool a fourth consecutive home defeat - against opponents their fans hate to see celebrating at Anfield.
Crisis averted. So, too, an unwanted place in history at a club who have not lost a quartet of successive games on their own turf since 1923.
The margins can be narrow on such occasions, but there had been a steeliness in Klopp’s voice when he made his weekend vow, and there was a resolve to Liverpool. An unexpected slide was ended by willpower, running power and aural power. Liverpool turned the volume up on Chelsea. They buzzed around them, hassled and harried them and rose to the occasion.
Anfield was louder. The visit of Chelsea changed the mood, from despondency to defiance. Liverpool displayed urgency and intensity, if not quite enough quality. They showed something of the psychology of this peculiar, beguiling team, who remain unbeaten against the top six but have illustrated their fallibility in supposedly more winnable games. Liverpool had wilted under the burden of expectation against Swansea, Southampton and Wolves. Being seen as equals suits them. They have an underdog mentality, a willingness to scrap and chase, that helps explain their excellent record in summit clashes.
They ran their way out of a rut, sweated their way to a result. They recaptured something of their old selves, shorn of the squad players who had been found wanting, and with the talismanic Sadio Mane back – albeit only for the final 15 minutes. Klopp, like Antonio Conte, has a first 13. It is all the Chelsea manager has needed. Liverpool have had less luck with injuries. The fault lines in their group have been exposed.
Jurgen Klopp before the match
Image credit: Reuters
However, even as Liverpool joined Tottenham in a select band of two teams to take points off Chelsea since Conte switched to 3-4-2-1, the league leaders still extended their remarkable record. They now have 46 points from a possible 51.
It is all the more impressive because, as this draw indicated, Chelsea’s starting 11 is not vastly superior to everyone else’s. Theirs is not a triumph of resources, but of consistency, of management, of method. They churn out victories against the rest.
It is why they are in a sufficiently commanding position that draws will do in such games. Their advantage over Liverpool remains 10 points. And as they have only dropped two points against the Premier League’s bottom 14 this season, they only need to neutralise their immediate rivals, not beat them.
It was reflected in Conte’s game-plan.
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte
Image credit: Imago
The strategy on Tuesday night bore certain similarities with Conte’s approach at the Etihad Stadium when Chelsea only really attacked with three players. With Manchester City in self-destructive mode, that yielded a 3-1 win. This might have produced the same scoreline.
Victor Moses, who at times became a fourth man to join the advances at Anfield, struck the outside of the post. Costa took an unconvincing penalty after Joel Matip waved a leg at him and he went to ground. It completed a tale of two set-pieces. Costa’s tame spot kick and Luiz’s brilliant free-kick.
The Brazilian’s shot moved in the air. A stationary Mignolet did not. It is a regular complaint that the Belgian is not good enough. On this occasion, he was not even alert enough.
All of which seemed a familiar script for Liverpool, so often undermined by faulty goalkeeping in recent years. But Klopp likes his sides to project an indomitability. Liverpool responded. Gini Wijnaldum levelled. Only N’Golo Kante and Moses seemed to really match their dynamism.
In their different ways, Chelsea with solidity and Liverpool with energy, each ground out a result.
And on a night when none of their rivals made up ground on Chelsea, the sight of Conte pumping his fists after the final whistle was revealing. Liverpool did not go any lower, but Chelsea can sense the height of a title win.