The one thing that Liverpool absolutely could not do today was lose. So what do they do? Play right in to Jose Mourinho's hands, and lose. Chelsea were the last team to beat Liverpool, all the way back in December, and now they've ended the 11-match win streak with a resounding thud.
Chelsea 2 Ba 45+3', Willian 90+4'
I'm not going to sit here and further the "Mourinho is a negative tactic so-and-so" storyline. There's going to be enough of that floating around today, and there was frankly way too much of it during the buildup to the match. The fact of the matter is that Mourinho and his staff put together a gameplan that was smart and effective, and Liverpool had a very difficult time finding a way to beat it.
Yes, they sat deep and looked to absorb pressure and hit on the counter. But between the occasion and the available team, playing for the counter just made sense. The front line of Andre Schurrle, Demba Ba, and Mohamed Salah (and Willian when he came on) are built for that kind of direct play that lets them run on to a ball in space and take it strraight at the defense. Without any of his main playmakers, playing to that strength just made sense for Mourinho to do.
The timewasting was certainly annoying, especially with how early it started. But you know what? That just made it all the more important for Liverpool to take full advantage of the opportunities they got, because they had to know they wouldn't get as many as they're used to, and that Chelsea would be sure to punish any mistakes Liverpool made on the break.
What was more frustrating than anything Chelsea did was that Liverpool did not take full advantage of their chances. Too often the ball was going to Lucas Leiva or Joe Allen in the box instead of Luis Suarez or Raheem Sterling, and the Kop was left wanting more as a result. That plus the bizarre, match-long obsession with crossing for headers in to the box, something that's almost never worked for Liverpool this season and certainly didn't make sense today, made for a long and frustrating match.
Did Liverpool create some good chances? Sure. Just after the 10th minute, Suarez picked out Philippe Coutinho and put the ball in for him on a dime, but the Brazilian's volley only found the side netting. Several minutes later, a Lucas shot off a corner was cleared off the line, and a follow-up from Sakho went well over the bar.
Sadly, "close, but no cigar" moments like that became far too typical for Liverpool today. Several other first half chances were much the same, and as halftime approached it seemed that Liverpool were willing to take the 0-0 scoreline in to the locker room to draw up a new plan.
A pass to Steven Gerrard in a seemingly benign moment during the first half added time was horribly miscontrolled (or just plain missed), and a slip as he tried to recover just made things worse. Demba Ba picked up the loose ball and was off to the races. Gerrard gave it his best effort, but it was too little too late, and there was nothing Simon Mignolet could do to stop Ba's free, unmarked shot.
The second half was pretty much a carbon copy of the first. More inability to break through Chelsea's defense. More useless crosses without a prayer of coming off. More just-off finishing (though Joe Allen had quite a crack of a shot that Mark Schwarzer did well to keep out). This time, though, we had the added fun of a mostly-useless Daniel Sturridge and desperation heaves from Steven Gerrard that were pretty much of zero value.
Oh yeah, and another added time mistake lead to another Chelsea goal. Fernando Torres was involved in the buildup. That happened. Ugh.
The title challenge isn't over yet. The trophy isn't solely in their hands any more, but they're still arguable the strongest contender. If Liverpool can beat both Crystal Palace and Newcastle, Manchester City will have to win out and at least maintain their goal differential advantage. Chelsea are technically still in the picture, but have to win out and hope both sides ahead of them in the odds falter down the stretch.
This match has to serve as a wakeup call. Despite the long win streak, Liverpool haven't exactly been in invincible form in recent weeks. The second half of the Norwich City match should have proved that. Yes, Chelsea are a very good side who came out with an excellent (if unattractive to watch) game plan, but for Liverpool to be so hapless against them was a rather rough thing to see. They'll need to be vastly improved next weekend at Selhurst Park, and that won't be easy to do given Palace's recent form.
Winning the title was never going to be easy, but hopefully this result can kick things in to an even higher gear for these last two matches. Needing other results to go Liverpool's way isn't a great place to be in, but the squad have a task in front of them and need to do everything they can to accomplish it. Today was a setback, but not the deathknell. There's still hope.
We go again.