The much anticipated coronation party on Merseyside didn’t quite pan out as expected at the weekend.
In the managerial encounter between the former allies, it was the master that resoundingly triumphed over the apprentice. Jose Mourinho played the role of pantomime villain perfectly as his “shadow” Chelsea side dented Brendan Rodgers’ hopes of delivering Liverpool‘s first league title since 1990.
But it was also a defeat which perfectly illustrated the gap between Liverpool and their title rivals. While Chelsea and Manchester City have an embarrassment of riches at their disposal, Rodgers is betrayed by a lack of genuine quality beyond his first XI. With the demands placed upon the elite clubs, modern football is very much a squad game. And unfortunately for Liverpool, they learnt that lesson the hard way against Mourinho’s much-changed side.
With the millions invested at Stamford Bridge by Roman Abramovich over the years, it is difficult to truly label any XI which the “Special One” can select as a “shadow” side. Tomas Kalas was handed a Premier League debut but the Blues were still able to call upon the experience of the likes of Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and Jon Obi Mikel.
But true to Mourinho’s word, it was a much-changed team. For one reason or another, it was an XI deprived of a number of key individuals. Petr Cech, Samuel Eto’o, Eden Hazard and John Terry were all ruled out through injury. Ramires was suspended whilst Gary Cahill, David Luiz, Oscar and Willian were all rested or dropped to the bench ahead of the visit of Atletico on Wednesday.
It was a team selection which ultimately still secured the victory whilst still managing to prioritise the Champions League.
In contrast, Rodgers named an unchanged eleven from the side that secured a 3-2 victory at Carrow Road to record their eleventh consecutive Premier League victory. In the absence of any European commitments, Liverpool have benefited enormously from a relaxed schedule in their domestic pursuits.
Aside from the suspended Jordan Henderson and Daniel Sturridge, Rodgers arguably selected his strongest team. Due to the conditions of his loan agreement, Victor Moses was ineligible but having failed to impress in his stint at Anfield so far, the Nigerian would likely have only occupied a spot on the substitutes bench.
For all of Liverpool’s possession and territorial advantage, the Premier League’s top scoring side failed to fashion any clear chances of note over the entire ninety minutes. Trailing 1-0 and failing to break down the resolute Chelsea defence, Rodgers turned to Sturridge as his only substitute that realistically could have changed the game. When that didn’t work, Liverpool’s hopes were then unfortunately pinned upon Iago Aspas. Inevitably, the flop from Celta Vigo failed to make an impact.
When Plan A failed, Rodgers looked to his bench and realised that he didn’t have a Plan B. Given time to adapt, maybe Aspas and fellow summer recruit Luis Alberto will prove to have something to offer at Anfield in the future. But as it stands, Liverpool don’t possess the same quality within their squad as their title rivals and it is perhaps surprising that this wasn’t exposed until the last weekend of April.
In contast, Mourinho was able to call upon a £50 million replacement for Demba Ba in the shape of Fernando Torres. £32 million summer signing Willian provided fresh legs when the Brazilian replaced Mohamed Salah just past the hour. The crucial goal in the contest was scored by arguably the club’s third choice striker, with Ba finding his opportunities limited under the “Special One.”
How Rodgers must envy the depth of talent his managerial adversary had to call upon.
It is a defeat which cruelly stripped Liverpool’s destiny from out of their own hands. Twists and turns in the remainder of the title race are still to be expected. But Liverpool need to learn the lessons from this demoralising defeat regardless of the season’s outcome.
With Champions League football beckoning and future title challenges now expected, the club’s owners need to back Rodgers in the transfer market this summer. Liverpool possess a starting eleven capable of mixing it with the country’s finest but without a capable squad, the Anfield outfit will struggle to continually compete with their rivals.