High press, high-octane and highly entertaining; these have been what Brendan Rodgers desires his Liverpool team to be associated with. For much of the season, what has transpired post-Luis Suarez is an insipid Liverpool team devoid of energy and commitment. The Champions League exit was not down to Lazar Markovic’s red card in the final group game against FC Basel, but the overall lack of desire in the away performance in Switzerland earlier in the campaign. The Reds’ current league position was due to the lack of incision and penetration when they faced organised, disciplined opposition defences at Anfield; Aston Villa, Sunderland and Hull among the beneficiaries who stifled and ultimately took points off Rodgers’ side.
In the past month, though, Liverpool look a whole new side altogether. Back then, most would think that such potential resurgence would be due to the return to fitness, and form, of leading striker Daniel Sturridge, or just maybe, new signing Mario Balotelli found his old goalscoring boots in the home dressing room of the Etihad. However, neither has transpired, and it is instead the improved form of the current personnel as well as of most of the much-criticised new signings, while Rodgers’ switch in formation should have something to do with that as well.
The recent improvement in results since the defeat at Old Trafford has some attributing to the lack of quality opponents, or a matter of good fortune. Against Chelsea at Anfield on Tuesday night, in the first leg of the League Cup semifinals, Liverpool put the full-strength league leaders to the sword; the only negative of this is the lack of a go-ahead goal, handing Chelsea the advantage going into the second leg next week.
Still, things have to be put into perspective. And when this draw was made a month ago, most bemoaned the fact Liverpool didn’t draw Sheffield United, or even Tottenham Hotspur, and many Reds fans were expecting the worst. Then the past weekend saw Chelsea put five past Swansea City in Wales. Expectations for this fixture would only drop. But to everyone’s pleasant surprise, Rodgers’ boys stuck to the formation and plan that have worked so well in recent times and produced one of their best performances so far this season.
In terms of performance, it was probably better than the Swansea thrashing and very close to the levels experienced at Spurs. Liverpool were simply magnificent throughout, more so in the second half. Chelsea might have looked threatening in the first half, as Eden Hazard went to ground in the penalty area before slotting home the penalty himself, but the Reds always looked in control. Rodgers’ side managed to keep the tempo as high as they wanted and needed, while creating 20 chances to Chelsea’s handful.
Of course, critics will point to Liverpool’s lack of efficiency in front of goal. But on another day, lady lucked might have smiled on Steven Gerrard’s left-footed shot, and end up in the back of the net via a glance of the post, or that Adam Lallana’s ferocious half volley might have just squeezed past the fingertips of the fully-stretched Thibaut Courtois. For some tangible positives, Philippe Coutinho continued his impressive form as the two behind the striker, while Raheem Sterling vindicated Rodgers’ decision to give him a mid-season break by scoring a Lionel Messi-esque goal – though Reds fans should not get too carried away just yet.
The defence, once again, turned in a solid performance and seems to improve with each passing game. Mamadou Sakho produced another display that continues to leave Liverpool fans wondering ‘what ifs’ had Sakho started in place of Dejan Lovren at the start of the campaign, while Martin Skrtel is finally producing the form that saw him win his place back earlier in Rodgers’ reign. Emre Can might have given away an unfortunate penalty with his rash challenge, but he still had a decent showing, seeing that he was up against Hazard as well as the league’s top-scorer, and considering the right wing-back tasked with covering him, Markovic, isn’t a wing-back.
Skipper-in-waiting and current vice-captain Jordan Henderson played as though he had to put one right against Nemanja Matic, having been dominated by the Serb during the league fixture in November, while his midfield partner, Lucas Leiva, continues to prove his value to Rodgers.
Obviously, a 1-1 draw should never be exactly celebrated, even if it’s against the league leaders, or no matter how impressive the performance was. Jose Mourinho’s side still have an away goal (away goals only count if the tie reaches the end of extra-time), and the second leg at Stamford Bridge will once again leave Reds fans more in hope than expectation. Liverpool will need to defend better, yet find a way to crack open that very disciplined Chelsea back line and double pivot again.
In a way, the 1-1 draw sees Rodgers approach the next leg similar to if the Reds had lost 1-0. Liverpool still need to search for an away goal, but at least they have a buffer, regardless of how small, in that Chelsea may again take the lead, but the Reds can still continue approaching the match the same way – only now that an away goal would only force extra-time and a probable penalty shoot-out. Having had much practice in the tie against Middlesborough, Rodgers’ side probably wouldn’t mind a penalty shoot-out if offered one now.