Liverpool 1 Sterling 59'
Chelsea 1 Hazard 18'
On a snow-dusted Anfield pitch, a free flowing Liverpool outfit pushed Chelsea to the brink of defeat. It could have been a famous win for the home team if not for Thibaut Courtois, and what ifs certainly hover after Steven Gerrard struck the post with a second half effort and Courtois barely tipped a well-hit Adam Lallana volley wide of the his goal.
One of the key tactical battles in the match existed in Chelsea's defensive midfield where Jose Mourinho opted to deploy both Nemanja Matic and John Obi Mikel to neutralize Liverpool's fluid attacking trio of Philippe Coutinho, Raheem Sterling, and Steven Gerrard. Early on, Matic and Mikel bothered Liverpool's featherweight attackers with their physicality, causing Liverpool to repeatedly lose possession in the midfield. But as the game progressed, the brutish nature of Matic and Mikel, as well as John Terry and Gary Cahill, became a weakness to exploit.
Coutinho, Sterling, and Lazar Markovic found space through neat dribbling moves in tight midfield areas, as Matic and Mikel weren't quick enough to stop them. Long ground passes to Coutinho and Sterling, who continuously darted into open spaces, proved to be an effective method of attack because they allowed them to turn and dribble at Chelsea's slow-footed defense before supplying others.
Matic and Mikel stemmed Liverpool's onrush for most of the first half, but they could not handle the incessant pressure for the entire match. As they dropped deep in the second half to soak up pressure, Liverpool's attackers, led by Coutinho, settled into large gaps of open space in front of the defense and wreaked havoc.
Another key battle came on the right side of Liverpool's defense, where Eden Hazard provided the biggest challenge that Markovic and Emre Can have seen so far this season in their new defensive roles. Hazard was kept quiet aside from one piece of play, but that moment resulted in Chelsea's opening goal. It occurred in the 18th minute, as Can took Hazard down in the box after he had allowed Cesc Fabregas to dribble past him at the byline. Hazard converted from the penalty spot, sending Simon Mignolet the wrong direction, and Chelsea grabbed an early 1-0 advantage after looking the lesser side to that point.
Can showed great character to rebound from his error though, and he proceeded to play excellently for the remainder of the game. Not only was he solid defensively, doing well to keep Hazard from inflicting further damage, but he also marauded forward on multiple occasions to keep Chelsea on the back foot.
As a team, Liverpool kept the visitors pinned back through great group pressing and a host of fine individual performances. From the opening whistle the Reds chased down the ball relentlessly, not allowing Chelsea to settle in. And it wasn't just a couple of players applying pressure -- it was a true team effort, from Coutinho to Lucas to the back three. While the high press almost led to a few calamitous moments when Chelsea tried to counter attack, the strategy kept Liverpool in control and fueled some of their most dangerous attacking moves.
Despite having the edge in vital tactical areas and pressing effectively, Liverpool trailed 1-0 at the break. Chelsea perhaps thought that they'd fought off Liverpool's biggest push when the halftime whistle blew, but the Reds ramped up their level of play to an even higher level in the second half, and the visitors seemed ill prepared for such a forceful second wave.
Liverpool pressed even harder in the second half, continuously feeding the attackers after regaining possession in the midfield. In the middle of the pitch, Coutinho, Sterling, and Gerrard excelled as Chelsea's defensive midfield shriveled away under the constant pressure of Liverpool's pace and fluidity. Markovic and Alberto Moreno rushed forward down the wings to keep Chelsea from packing the middle.
Liverpool's reward came in the 59th minute. Jordan Henderson started the move by playing another long ground pass to a Liverpool attacker, this time Sterling. Sterling received the ball with Matic and Mikel spread out on either side of him, distracted by the threats of Coutinho and Gerrard. He turned and burst forward, sprinting by Cahill before unleashing a left-footed shot past Courtois to level the score at 1-1.
Even after conceding, Chelsea appeared content to sit back and preserve a valuable away draw. But Liverpool kept on coming at them, and seemed moments from a winner throughout the final 30 minutes. A winner never came though, even as Gerrard hit the woodwork and Lallana was narrowly thwarted by Courtois.
It's disappointing that an overwhelmingly positive performance did not translate to victory, and it will be extremely difficult for Liverpool to net an away goal at Stamford Bridge next week and progress. However, Liverpool's new tactical system outplayed one of the strongest sides on the planet, and the whole team contributed to the effort. The rest of the season presents a hefty challenge to Liverpool, but this performance indicates that they are plenty ready to meet it.