Facing Chelsea at Stamford Bridge is never easy. But with Petr Cech suspended and with Liverpool’s knack for playing well against the London giants, I felt optimistic going into yesterday’s match. And with Liverpool dominating the first stretch of play, I felt a goal was inevitable and a win was feasible.
I was stumped by Rafa’s decision to leave Yossi Benayoun out though. Since Chelsea were relying on their back-up keeper it would seem the more cannons we could fit on the pitch the better. My lineup would have been Reina, Johnson, Skrtel, Carragher, Insua, Mascherano, Gerrard, Riera, Benayoun, Kuyt, Torres. That’s a firm backbone in midfield (Masch, Gerrard) with four proven goal scorers in attack (Yossi, Riera, Kuyt, Torres). And even with Rafa’s eternal insistence on starting Lucas, I still would have found a place for Yossi (probably over Riera) with his league hat trick still fresh in the memory.
But Yossi was nowhere to be seen when the match began. I will say, however, Lucas had one of his better outings. Like Liverpool, he rises to the challenge of facing a big side (most notably his start against Manchester United last season) and he held his own: digging in, making firm challenges, turning possession around. When Yossi did finally hit the pitch, though, he was the best player in sight. Taking on defenders. Turning. Prodding. Penetrating. His one great chance was off target, but I feel if he’d had more time on the pitch he could have made the difference.
2-0, as my friend Marty said after the match, was a flattering scoreline to Chelsea. For most of the match Liverpool were the better side. One slip-up by Mascherano (our best player before Yossi came on: his defensive work was solid – his distribution was inspiring) gave Anelka the chance he needed to open the scoring and turn the tide. But despite the points dropped, I was encouraged by Liverpool’s play, especially after the shoddy outing against Fiorentina midweek.
Truth is it’s hard to undo Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Yesterday’s loss should remind us what a brilliant win last season’s upset there really was. There’s a reason the Blues go on long unbeaten streaks at home: they are hard to beat at the Bridge.
The biggest concern for me was Didier Drogba going up against our defense which has had its problems this season. But until his devastating assist in the late minutes, Drogba seemed more interested in falling down than creating a viable chance. In August I wrote an article searching for my new football villain after Ronaldo’s departure from the Premier League. Drogba was the best candidate. Yesterday he sealed it for me.
I’ve never seen somebody that big go down that easily and then get up so quickly once play resumes. It seems like even if his dives are convincing, the ref should stop giving him the benefit of the doubt after he’s done it four times. “Drogba was shot four times,” said Marty. “But he never died!”
My friend Niall reiterated his complaint from last season’s Champions League quarter-final second leg: “I’d be embarassed to have him on my side.”
Clearly John Terry felt the same way when he finally strode up to Drogba and scolded him out for his ridiculous simulating.
Overall, I cannot condemn Liverpool’s efforts. Despite the points dropped, this was one of our more convincing displays of the season. The two moments that led to the goals were two of the few moments where we slipped. It stings to have dropped nine points already this season, but if the title becomes out of reach, I won’t look to yesterday’s match as the match to blame. Spurs: yes. Villa: yes. Not yesterday.
The only thing I would have done differently is start Yossi Benayoun. Hopefully his wonderful performance as a substitute yesterday earns him a starting place next time out.