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Jack: Chelsea deliver a knock down punch to Liverpool's bid

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Kristian Jack
4/27/2014 1:03:29 PM
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Brendan Rodgers said he had never slept better heading into the heavyweight clash against Chelsea at Anfield on Sunday.

Rodgers has spent the best part of three months ducking and diving from the questions about pressure and his side's title bid.

Yet, when his team entered the raucous theatre of Anfield to another stunning rendition of 'You'll Never Walk Alone' standing across from his side was the all too familiar opponent of Chelsea.

It was Chelsea that had given Liverpool their toughest test in 2005 on the way to them winning a remarkable European Cup.

It was Chelsea who was the last team to defeat Liverpool in the Premier League, back in December, and now it was Chelsea standing in front of the gates that guarded the path towards the Premier League trophy.

Now, that is pressure.

It could not have been scripted more perfectly. A former, true heavyweight in the game, whose level amongst the elite has slipped over the past two decades, now with a clear path towards a shock championship, if only they can get past the powerhouse in blue.

It was at Chelsea, of course, where Rodgers worked on his craft under Jose Mourinho and now it had come full circle, a chance for the pupil to defeat the teacher on the grandest of stages.

Up until now, even against Manchester City earlier this month, Liverpool had played with a reckless abandon, punching holes in defences and predictions, while gathering more and more believers that they could do what was thought to be impossible just five months ago.

Their journey had guided them closer and closer to the pinnacle. With three games left, Liverpool needed just seven points from their last nine to win it all, and with Crystal Palace and Newcastle to come, there was no more hiding from the facts, no matter what Rodgers said.

Don't lose to Chelsea and the title should be yours.

Despite what Jose would want you to believe, this was no minnow facing up to the Reds as Chelsea picked a team that they had paid over 100 million pounds to assemble.

Inside the tight, organised system drawn-up by Mourinho, the visitors were exactly as expected.

Liverpool's breathless starts had catapulted them to within touching distance of glory but on this bright, sunny afternoon they weren't allowed to sprint out of the box.
   
Chelsea sat deep and allowed them to have a lot of the ball but with it the home team suddenly looked a side that carried extra weight.

The weight of expectation can get very heavy on a footballer's shoulder. With every pass, the Liverpool players had an extra thought.

The brilliantly organized visitors closed the space and with it the punches, so ruthlessly delivered in past games by Liverpool, were missing.

Raheem Sterling was Liverpool's brightest player in the first half. How refreshing it is to see a young Englishman appreciate space as much as he does.

Still, Liverpool probed but if Chelsea were on the ropes they were hanging out by them comfortable at taking the punishment.

Branislav Ivanovic, back at Anfield after Luis Suarez took Mike Tyson style bite out of him last April, was magnificent leading Chelsea's back four. Young Tomas Kalas could not have asked for a better partner to learn from on his Premier League debut. Gary Cahill and John Terry have been excellent this season but the Serbian defender reads the game superbly and, contrary to the English defenders, never loses his cool.

Cesar Azpilicueta, back to his more comfortably right back slot, was excellent and both he and Ashley Cole looked like full backs who had been sent out to do a specific job, narrowing the back four and inviting Liverpool to stretch the field and take the ball where they didn't want to.

It had been over seven months since Liverpool had played 45 Premier League minutes at home without scoring and as the half-time whistle grew nearer, at 0-0, tension started to creep in at Anfield.

Then the creeping exploded.

When Steven Gerrard received the ball in front of the Kop he made one small mistake, miscontrolling it, then a bigger one, slipping to retrieve it, and then the rope-a-dope was on as Demba Ba sprinted in alone to deliver a knockdown punch. One nil Chelsea.

It was a scene from Liverpool's not so distant past, one that wouldn't have been out of place last season when many a team would come in and force a maturing Liverpool into a mistake.

It was those mistakes that helped Liverpool learn and progress but even they had been stunned with such a rapid climb that had brought them so tantalizingly close where suddenly those mistakes were far more costly than when the likes of Downing, Carroll and Adam were on the payroll.

Such progression meant they now had to face up to something they hadn't really seen.

Adversity.

And it was delivered in the cruelest of manners with Gerrard, the catalyst for so much of their success this season, falling to his knees in the middle of his favourite place on earth.

There was a second half still to play but Liverpool never looked the same. They had never been behind for longer than 35 minutes since their last game against Chelsea but once again that total was overtaken against the familiar foe. Suarez had a shot well saved and Joe Allen's volley almost went in but Chelsea were resilient throughout, delivering a true knock-out punch just before the final bell when Willian tapped home.

An under-the-weather Mourinho sprinted down the touchline again while Rodgers crossed his arms and looked on.

Chelsea had done the double on Liverpool when many teams couldn't even beat them once. 

Liverpool's fans headed to the exits heads full of emotions about the title race, knowing the title was still in reach but now out of their hands. They will feel they can get to 86pts with two remaining wins but Man City, all too familiar with winning leagues on goal difference, can now get to that mark as well and should if they can finally get over a huge hurdle for that club and win at Goodison Park next week.

Chelsea, still two points behind Liverpool, are likely out of the race but, once again, showed a team what you have to become to be winners.

Without Petr Cech, John Terry, Ramires, Eden Hazard, Samuel Eto'o and others, they had shown the style and character it takes to succeed in the biggest of games.

Liverpool are rightfully anxious to win the league because it has been over two decades since they last did so, but, equally, they should be anxious knowing that a giant powerhouse, supposedly in transition, are getting stronger by the week.

This was a weaker Chelsea yet still they set the standard you must match to be champions. They will, likely, spend many more future sunny Sundays in late April wrapping up title bids rather than ripping up those of their opponents.

Sleep well, Brendan. You may never have a better chance than right now.

Sterling and Matic (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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