Prior to Cardiff City's visit to Anfield last Saturday, it was generally accepted that three points there was utterly crucial given the gauntlet that was to follow. Successive trips to Manchester City and Chelsea--the two sides most had tipped for the title prior to the start of the season--loomed large, and there was the very real possibility that Liverpool would finish the run of fixtures with two losses. And now they have, and while the results aren't necessarily anything to worry too much about, the residual impact of so many matches is certainly cause for concern in a paper-thin squad.
Chelsea 2: Hazard 17', Eto'o 34'
Liverpool 1: Skrtel 4'
Despite proving more than serviceable against Manchester City on Boxing Day, Brendan Rodgers opted to drop Aly Cissokho back to the bench in favor of vice-captain Daniel Agger, who made his first start in weeks at left-back. The rest of the side was unchanged and playing on tired legs; the same goes for every other squad in the league, of course, but injuries meant that Rodgers drafted both Brad Smith and Jordan Rossiter into the 18-man squad, simultaneously providing reasons for hope and concern.
The former grew substantially within four minutes, as Liverpool took the lead on a Martin Skrtel tap-in after Samuel Eto'o had dragged a boot across the knee of Jordan Henderson. It wouldn't be the last time the striker would commit a bookable offense, but on this occasion the foul was at least called, and some bungled Chelsea marking meant that a header from Luis Suarez bounced into space, leaving Skrtel alone to punch it in from close range to put the visitors up 1-0.
From there the match set itself on fire, with Chelsea taking the upper hand but both sides playing end-to-end stuff. Pressure finally told in the 17th minute after a number of saves from the terrific Simon Mignolet, as a break from the hosts--initially intercepted well by Mamadou Sakho--led to an equalizer. Sakho's intervention knocked the ball to the impressive (and suffocatingly smug) Eden Hazard, who hit an unstoppable curling shot at the far post past Mignolet to level the match.
Chelsea were easily the better side for the remainder of the half, and just shy of the 35-minute mark they'd get the winner from Eto'o, who beat Skrtel to a pass on the far side from Oscar to flick into Liverpool's goal after some shambolic defending. Mignolet got down quickly enough to put a hand on the shot, but he couldn't parry far enough to keep it from spinning in, and Liverpool would prove incapable of recovering.
They started the second half brightly and had a number of chances--only once through Suarez, however--to draw level, including Mamadou Sakho's looping header off the crossbar in the 58th minute and two no-calls from Howard Webb on incidents that very well could have been penalties. They visibly ran out of gas as the half wore on, though, and ultimately they couldn't find an equalizer as they dropped their second straight loss for the first time in Rodgers' tenure.
The loss itself isn't catastrophic by any stretch--you can barely take a virtual step without being reminded of the season's second-half schedule, or the likelihood that the squad will only improve from here with both fitness and personnel. But on the day, it was a combination of the result, the opposition, the injuries, and the disappointingly familiar manner in which Liverpool lost that created a largely negative reaction.
And those reactions are largely valid, because Chelsea are Chelsea and there were a number of moments that could have led to Liverpool getting back in the match, a decent amount of which involved Howard Webb. But Liverpool are again to blame for their failings, especially defensively, where the largely excellent work of Simon Mignolet is undone by a poor and disorganized defensive unit.
Daniel Agger performed well as fullback, and Sakho was mostly impressive on the day, but Martin Skrtel and Glen Johnson again underwhelmed, and exhaustion and fitness concerns in the midfield meant that Chelsea were able to impose themselves for long portions of the match. Luis Suarez was rarely involved, and while Raheem Sterling was excellent, Philippe Coutinho had trouble making an impact on the opposite flank and Liverpool's attack was mostly ineffective. The hosts were deserved winners, using their strength and quality while Liverpool were left to survive through injuries to Sakho and Joe Allen and tired bodies throughout the squad.
As bad as it seems now, especially with results going the way of rivals on the weekend, these two losses won't determine Liverpool's season. If the worries about depth are addressed and things continue to remain solid at Anfield, there's every reason to believe that the week's setback is a temporary phenomenon rather than a permanent one.