Sunday, April 27, 2014

On the buses

Much like my romantic life, there are plenty of ifs, buts and maybes ahead before anything decisive comes out of the 2013-2014 Barclays Premier League season.

Today's showdown between Liverpool and Chelsea at Anfield had been billed as some sort of title decider, on account of the fact that Merseysiders were rampant, and the Londoners were going to field a weakened side ahead of their Champions League semi-final second leg on Wednesday.

And thus, at first, the game went to plan: Liverpool came out of the traps with their now well established 'shock and awe' blitz, the same approach that allowed them to monster Arsenal in February.  If the frenetic pace of the opening spell was anything to go by, it was likely that Chelsea would have succumbed in much the same manner as Arsenal had.

José Mourinho clearly had other ideas. With a back four comprising César Azpiliqueta, Ashley Cole, Branislav Ivanovic and debutante Tomas Kalas (the Chelsea equivalent of the CD you buy in a spree at HMV, forget, and then discover while rooting around for that obscure Neil Young album you suddenly have an urge for), with the impressive Matic and the usually less than impressive Mikel in front of them, Mourinho arrived with not so much a bus to park in front of goal, as the entire National Express fleet.

"They parked two buses," Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers spat somewhat ungraciously afterwards. "From the first minute they had ten men behind the ball," adding in a lengthy rant about Mourinho's tactics that  "[Liverpool] are a team that tried to win the game in a sporting manner. We tried to initiate play with the ball, but it was just not to be."

Well, I'm sorry. I know there are plenty of armchair experts who spent most of the 90-plus minutes pontificating on Twitter about "anti-football" and generally demonising Chelsea, but when Martin Atkinson blew the final whistle, I couldn't help but noticing that the team in blue had won by a margin of two goals to none from the team in red.

What rule says Chelsea can't defend in strength and then hit Liverpool on the break? Can I counter that by complaining that Liverpool were trying to smother Chelsea from the beginning, putting two - even three defenders - on Ba and Schürrle anytime they got near Mignolet's goal? No, of course not. Chelsea played football. Liverpool played football. The team with more goals won. "Fact", as one former Liverpool manager once said.

Now, granted, Demba Ba's goal was, like many of Chelsea's goals this season, the result of a defensive slip (another way of saying "shocker" by 'King' Stevie), and that Chelsea's second - a simple tap-in after Fernando Torres unselfishly handed the opportunity to Willian - came at the tired end of an exhausting second half, but the objective of putting more goals in the opposition's net was well and properly met by Chelsea, and Liverpool should have no quarrel.

Yes, Chelsea put every resource they had at the back, but then why wouldn't you? Why would you willingly go to an away fixture and not park the bus, especially against Liverpool who have amassed a goal difference of +50 this season? Sunderland did exactly the same at Stamford Bridge a week ago, producing more or less the same result as Chelsea did today at Anfield.

At the end of the day, Liverpool, for all their much vaunted bite in attack - yes Luis Suarez, I of course mean you - along with Sterling and Sturridge forming an impressive triumvirate that had maintained an 11-game winning streak, failed to unlock the Chelsea defence. Indeed, Mark Schwarzer - who redeemed himself and then some after the Sunderland game with a brilliant performance when called upon - went the best part of an hour without having to make a save.

Can you blame Chelsea? Do you really think that they would have sat back and just handed the Premier League title to Liverpool? No.

Like it or not Mourinho's tactics today were spot on. This game, far from being the antipathy of footballing excellence was an enthralling, at times heart-in-the-mouth encounter.

I know this because I only managed to consume two pints from start to finish. That's how much I was glued to the pub's big screen.

The fact that various Chelsea players were leggy and cramp-ridden towards the end said it all about a game in which they sat deep and hit Liverpool on the break, invariably covering dozens of yards in a single burst.

If there is one interminable frustration with Chelsea, it's why they didn't perform like this against Sunderland last week. Or against Crystal Palace or Aston Villa earlier.

Why, even with a somewhat second string on the pitch, they only open the locker and give a display like this when they're up against clubs like Liverpool?

For that, Mourinho needs to ask himself a few questions about motivation. Tactically he is beyond reproach, but when Chelsea have played 'lesser' teams this season, they've looked disinterested, lethargic and mindful of bigger prizes.

The bus-parking may not win the respect of others, but for Chelsea fans, our respect would be earned by seeing a team give 100% every time they wear the blue shirt. Today, they did. Let's hope they do so again on Wednesday night against Atletico.

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