Chelsea 2 Liverpool 2
It had been tempting to fixate on Thomas Tuchel’s decision to drop Romelu Lukaku from the Chelsea squad after that interview. But it was a measure of what followed once the first whistle had blown that the club’s record signing – and all the drama around him – was swiftly relegated to footnote status.
Tuchel said that he did not select Lukaku because his situation had represented too much of a distraction – what with him saying that he was unhappy at the club and questioning the manager’s system. Not for the first time, Chelsea coped pretty well without him.
During a thrilling first half, they rallied from two goals down, restoring parity through a Mateo Kovacic wonder goal and a tidy finish from Christian Pulisic. When Chelsea can summon this sort of surge, it makes a mockery of their recent Premier League form, which now shows only four wins out of nine.
Liverpool played a full part in a richly entertaining spectacle, their goals coming from Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah; the former snapping a nine-game scoring drought, the latter continuing his red-hot touch. Both of them now depart for the Africa Cup of Nations, providing the latest curve ball for Jürgen Klopp, who was missing here after testing positive for Covid.
Never mind that the second half did not match the first, both teams still had the chances to snatch victory and yet, as the dust settled, there was one manager who was the happiest of all. It was Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola, who can now see a ten-point lead over Chelsea and 11 over Liverpool, albeit the latter have a game in hand.
The match had been framed by City’s last-gasp win at Arsenal on New Year’s Day – a result to reinforce the feeling that it looks set to be City’s season – and victory here had felt essential for both of these teams. Then there were the absentees, with Liverpool hit by the losses of the Covid positives Alisson, Joel Matip and Roberto Firmino – not to mention Klopp. The Arsenal manager, Mikel Arteta, who is also in Covid-enforced isolation, had said that he would need a “big room” to watch the City game. What about Klopp here? A country estate?
It was easy to imagine him charging around in the ninth minute when Mane gave Liverpool the lead, whereas Trevoh Chalobah, who had started nervously for Chelsea, simply wanted the ground to swallow him up. The centre-half got himself into a tangle when Diogo Jota clipped the ball forward, electing to stoop and try to head clear even though it was there for the volley. He succeeded only in ushering in Mané, who sliced inside Édouard Mendy before slamming his shot past César Azpilicueta on the line.
It was a ruthless demonstration of how to finish and Pulisic, in particular, would not have enjoyed it. The Chelsea winger had been presented with a similar chance moments earlier after Kai Havertz charged down a Trent Alexander-Arnold clearance. Collecting the ricochet, Pulisic tried to jink inside Caoimhin Kelleher only for the Liverpool stand-in goalkeeper to snake out a hand and paw clear.
Mané had earlier flirted with disaster, raising his elbow as he chased a high ball forward from kick-off and making contact with Azpilicueta, who crumpled to the ground. What saved Mané was that he did not jump or swing the arm. He was booked. Tuchel raged in his technical area.
Salah shimmered with menace and went close in the sixth minute after Chalobah’s loose header to Mané, who ran and crossed. It needed a saving challenge from Antonio Rudiger to deny Salah, the ball then flying towards goal and requiring a block by Mendy.
Salah’s goal was a beauty, starting with the touch to kill an Alexander-Arnold pass up the right. Salah froze Marcos Alonso with a shake of the hips and then, having opened up his body, he whipped an unstoppable shot past Mendy and into the near corner.
Chelsea were becoming aggrieved with the referee, Anthony Taylor – not a popular figure in these parts – and they needed an important slide tackle from Chalobah to stop the breaking Salah in the 36th minute.
At that point, the notion that Chelsea would be level at the interval was outlandish. But they got there after Kovacic’s wonderful volley from the edge of the area. Kelleher had punched clear from Alonso’s free-kick and Kovacic set himself as it dropped, placing the ball with the laces of his right boot up and in off the far post.
With Stamford Bridge in a frenzy, Rudiger stepped up to rob Salah and, when N’Golo Kanté helped the ball on, Pulisic was once again one on one with Kelleher. This time, the finish was true and there was still time before half-time for Mason Mount to stab past the far post.
It was riotous entertainment and the second-half was fired by an awareness that the draw did not suit either team. Both of them pushed, with Liverpool running through Chelsea on a number of occasions before seeing belatedly raised offside flags.
Mendy was forced to save then – when he did not really have to – but he made other interventions when he certainly did. He will be a loss for Chelsea when he departs for the Africa Cup of Nations with Senegal. His save to beat away a Salah lob on 57 minutes took the breath, chasing back to claw to safety, while he was alert to deny Mané moments later.
Alonso had shot wastefully shortly after the restart, while Chelsea could also point to a Pulisic effort in the 60th minute from an Alonso cross that drew an excellent save out of Kelleher.