There was plenty of pleasure to take from Chelsea’s 1-0 victory over Liverpool on Sunday as the Blues rose to the occasion to inflict defeat upon a major rival and keep their slender hopes of a top-four finish alive going into the final week of the season.
Liverpool might have been suffering from a midweek hangover following their successful but emotionally draining Champions League semifinal, but they still fielded pretty much their strongest available side. That they barely landed a glove on Chelsea was a testament to the attitude and organisation of the home team, who were tactically disciplined throughout.
There were certainly some standout performances as Eden Hazard and N’Golo Kante put in their mandatory stellar displays, though there were other less celebrated players that also caught the eye.
Antonio Rudiger was outstanding in keeping the PFA and FWA player of the year Mohamed Salah quiet for the duration of the game. The Premier League’s top goal scorer was not given a sniff of goal and rarely allowed time on the ball in dangerous areas. That was largely due to Rudiger’s invaluable combination of physicality, pace and positional awareness. After experiencing fluctuating fortunes at the start of his Chelsea career, the Germany international has blossomed with regular appearances and has certainly been one of the club’s success stories in this difficult season.
Victor Moses was also impressive in both facets of his game. Defensively, he was diligent and refused to let a Liverpool player get in behind him. From an attacking perspective, he was always a threat and delivered a few tempting crosses, one of which was duly converted by Olivier Giroud for the decisive goal.
From a strategic standpoint, Chelsea’s approach appeared to consist of three phases. They began by sitting deep and allowing Liverpool time on the ball, no doubt a ploy to counteract the visitors’ preference of starting quickly and breaking the deadlock early. After that threat was snuffed out, Chelsea pressed forward and largely dominated the game until the hour mark when Antonio Conte decided it was time to focus on holding onto his team’s lead rather than try to extend it.
Ultimately the gameplan worked but through it all some familiar issues that have plagued Chelsea all season were evident once again.
For starters, Chelsea should never have had to dig in for all three points — the team had enough chances to establish some daylight and the nervous last half hour could have been avoided if they had taken advantage of just one of their openings during the first 60 minutes.
While the defensive concentration was exemplary throughout, there seemed to be little thought regarding what happened when they won the ball back. In the blazing sun and with everybody working so hard, some lethargy in attack could have been expected, which is why it was surprising it took until the 86th minute for Conte to introduce some fresh legs.
Hazard had run himself into the ground, while Giroud was almost pedestrian for the final quarter of the game. With a back injury ruling Alvaro Morata out of the squad, Conte did not have a like-for-like alternative. But with Chelsea not even using Giroud as a target man in the later stages it would have made sense to replace the increasingly statuesque figure with somebody possessing greater dynamism.
As a result, Chelsea had no effective out-ball meaning that Liverpool could just continue to recycle their attacks. Conte’s side invited pressure and while the compact defensive unit forced the visitors into chucking uncharacteristic aerial balls into the box, it always felt that at least one of the crosses might hit its mark. As it happened, former Chelsea youngster Dominic Solanke was the recipient of the two that were not intercepted, though thankfully he steered both over the crossbar.
Had Liverpool stolen a point late on, there would have been plenty of groaning around Stamford Bridge about a lack of ambition and the absence of a cutting edge. Fortunately, they didn’t and instead Chelsea can focus on the positive as they head into the final two games of their Premier League campaign.
It will still be a tall order to qualify for the Champions League though four consecutive victories mean there is still a glimmer of hope. Tottenham and Liverpool will be expected to claim enough points to get themselves over the line, but with both seeing their league form falter lately, they might just be feeling the pressure of Chelsea’s late surge. The fight for the top four isn’t over yet.
Phil is one of ESPN’s Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.