WIDE BOYS: Raheem Sterling, left, tames the ball under the attentive watch of Ryan Bertrand
TWO POINTS dropped will be the prevailing view from Chelsea’s camp as Liverpool came away from London with their heads held high, finishing stronger of the two sides.
Chelsea, having been the Premier League’s early pace-setters, have now only claimed two points from three games; this weekend’s results mean both Manchester clubs have edged ahead of the London club, and have put some clear daylight between them and the rest of the chasing pack.
The Merseyside team remain mired in mid-table mediocrity; 13th place after 11 games – Brendan Rodgers' men have struggled to turn promising positions into wins, two victories thus far providing the evidence.
Much of the focus before kick-off honed in on Chelsea’s captain, John Terry, who made his return after serving his four-match suspension for racially abusing Anton Ferdinand. There were fears of how the former England captain would fare against the in-form Luis Suarez.
After an impeccably observed minute of silence to remember those who have served in the armed forces, the game got off to a lively start. Fernando Torres’ first touch was greeted with vociferous hostility by the away support. Yet the former Liverpool striker seemed unperturbed, showing for the ball and running with it menacingly during the early exchanges.
Set-pieces have proved a happy hunting ground for Chelsea recently, and Terry made a Juan Mata corner count when he eluded his marker and powered in a header past the hapless Brad Jones in the 20th minute.
Yet the defender’s impressive return to the first-team was short lived; 15 minutes later he went down in agony clutching his knee after a full-blooded collision with Suarez. Terry stuck out a leg to make a vital interception and the Uruguayan’s momentum meant he could only clatter into him. Chelsea’s captain left the field on a stretcher after five minutes of treatment, and was replaced by Gary Cahill.
Eden Hazard kept Liverpool’s rearguard on their toes – on the half hour mark, the Belgian tore across the pitch, leaving red shirts trailing in his wake and found Torres, whose low shot was palmed away to safety by the Australian keeper.
Liverpool struggled to test Petr Cech, and were particularly lucky not to go down another goal before the break. Mata should have scored after being released by an Oscar header, he evaded two defenders with a clever touch which presented him with only Jones to beat. However, the Spaniard blasted over, the ball nestling among the travelling fans. Mata, furious at his own profligacy, punched the turf like a two-year-old having a tantrum.
The second half saw both sides dramatically increase their tempo. Glen Johnson, formerly of Chelsea, helped out offensively, offering a useful outlet for his teammates to take the game to the home team. His dual against Ryan Bertrand was spicy, and the 23-year-old left-back, deputising for the injured Ashley Cole, acquitted himself well against Johnson’s marauding runs.
AGONY: Mikel despairs as another chance goes begging
The away team’s defence were putting on a stubborn display. Despite mesmerising footwork from Brazilian Oscar, Liverpool persisted in snuffing out Chelsea’s final ball. Veteran centre-half Jamie Carragher was especially impressive, keeping Torres under wraps. There was also an encouraging performance from Andre Wisdom, the 19-year-old did not put a foot wrong and will have given his manager much hope for the future.
It was another corner, 17 minutes from the final whistle, that brought the visitors level. Suso, who had come on for Nuri Sahin, whipped in the ball near post, where Carragher flicked it on for Suarez to nod into an unguarded net.
The goal drastically shifted the game in Liverpool’s favour, and the away team were imbued with a new sense of confidence. Raheem Sterling, who looks born to play on the biggest of stages, picked the match up by the scruff of its neck and tormented the home side with his pace. The 17-year-old scorched down the wings, ensuring Chelsea were constantly looking over their shoulders.
Suarez attempted an audacious lob from the halfway line, which left Cech scrambling backwards to collect.
Nonetheless, Rodgers’ men could not find a winner in spite of their best efforts, while Chelsea cursed their inability to turn possession into more goals.
After the match, Rodgers said the draw represented “terrific point.
“We could have won it at the end”, he added. “It’s a difficult place to come, and I’m delighted for my young players today. It bodes well for us going forward.
“We need one or two more players. If we can get them in January then hopefully we can turn those draws into wins.” The Liverpool manager remained realistic over his team’s title prospects. “We’re a long way off winning the league”, he said.
“We’re trying to improve on last season’s finish of eighth, that’s where we are right now, I’m afraid.”
Chelsea boss, Roberto Di Matteo, lamented the European Champions’ lack of cutting edge. “We knew we had to score a second goal. One – nil is always dangerous”, he said.
“We are still playing well, creating chances, and we just need to be a bit more clinical to win these games.”
Concerning Terry’s 30 minute performance before sustaining a knee ligament injury, which could lead to a lengthy layoff on the sidelines, Di Matteo said: “He started the game really well, he showed his experience and influence. He was having a real good game.”
Chelsea’s manager said he believes his team have much more to offer, despite the games coming thick and fast over the winter period. “I think we still have momentum, but in the league the United game [Chelsea lost 2-3] was a real blow,” he commented.
Whether Chelsea can reclaim the lead off the Manchester clubs will be Di Matteo’s acid test, a challenge owner Roman Abramovich will be watching with the keenest of eyes.