Liverpool v Chelsea - Premier League

Premier League Playback: Is this the best season in history?

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TITLE RACE BLOWN WIDE OPEN

We thought it was all over… it isn’t now!

Last week Liverpool seemed to have one hand on the Premier League title. All they had to do was grind out a draw with Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea at Anfield on Sunday. Instead, the Reds lost for the first time in seventeen PL matches, as a masterfully manufactured, and utterly Mourinho-esque, display gave Chelsea a stunning 2-0 win to turn the title race on its head.

With just three games to go Manchester City now have a slender advantage in the quest for the PL crown, as City, Liverpool and, to a lesser extent Chelsea, battle it out for the famous trophy.

(LATEST PREMIER LEAGUE STANDINGS)

Liverpool is still top of the standings, as they sit on 80 points with two games to go. Chelsea sit in second on 78 points with two games to go, while Manchester City are on 77 points but crucially they have three games left to play. The Citizens are in the driving seat, because if they win out, their goal difference is plus-8 over Liverpool. That means baring two mammoth wins for Brendan Rodgers’ side in their final two games, their destiny is no longer in their own hands.

The pressure is now all on City, will they crumble? Not according to Manuel Pellegrini.

“We always trust we can do it,” Pellegrini said. “After we lost to Liverpool I said we had to play three or four games more, each team, and in football all things can happen. We just had to win our games. We’ll see if we cope [with the pressure]. We must win the three games. I repeat: I’ve always said that all big teams must be under pressure to win the title.”

Pressure is building at the top and it is still building at the bottom too as Sunderland, Cardiff, Fulham, Norwich, West Brom and Aston Villa battle it out against the drop. More on that below, but ask yourself this question: is this the best Premier League season in history?

Premier League Schedule – Week 36

Result Recap & Highlights
Arsenal 3-0 Newcastle Recap and watch here
Crystal Palace 0-2 Man City Recap and watch here
Fulham 2-2 Hull City Recap and watch here
Liverpool 0-2 Chelsea Recap and watch here
Manchester United 4-0 Norwich Recap and watch here
Southampton 2-0 Everton Recap and watch here
Stoke 0-1 Tottenham Hotspur Recap and watch here
Sunderland 4-0 Cardiff City Recap and watch here
Swansea 4-1 Aston Villa Recap and watch here
West Brom 1-0 West Ham Recap and watch here

In what other campaign has the title race come down to goal difference, no team has been relegated with just two games to go and the battle for the top four is still, mathematically, open?

I’d argue we are witnessing the best ever season in the PL. Let’s enjoy the climax which is sure to be just as dramatic as the previous 36 weeks of action. This grueling slog which started last August could come down to one final kick in the final second of the final match of the season to decide the champion and who is relegated. That’s drama. That’s pressure. That’s the Premier League.

CHELSEA’S MASTERCLASS: HOW MOURINHO DID IT

If we call Liverpool’s tactics naïve. Chelsea’s were sublime. Time and time again the Blues cut their cloth accordingly and don’t mind digging in and grinding out results when they know that is the best thing to do. That is smart coaching.

For those of you out their screaming ‘anti-football, anti-football’ at the top of your lungs, you’re wrong. To do what Chelsea did on Sunday away at Anfield against a team going for 12-straight wins it extremely difficult and not many other sides can do it in world soccer. The shape, the organization, the discipline, for me it was almost as impressive as watching a team scoring six goals and tearing an opponent apart with scintillating attacking interplay. I say almost because we all love to watch goals hit the back of the onion bag. Yet this was a defensive masterclass, our analysts break it down in the video below.

Chuck in the factor that this mammoth game was sandwiched in-between two UEFA Champions League semifinals against Atletico Madrid and it’s even more impressive. Are you not impressed? Okay, how about this. 20-year-old center back Tomas Kalas was making his full debut at the heart of Chelsea’s defense, regular right back Bransilav Ivanovic slotted into the center, Ashley Cole came in from the cold again to play at left back and Cesar Azpilicueta swapped left back for right back in a totally new back four which looked as if it had played together for years.

In a recent interview with a Czech newspaper, Kalas said the following: “I am a player for training sessions. If they need a cone they put me there instead.” Afterwards I asked Mourinho about Kalas’ superb display at the heart of the Blues’ defense and the Chelsea boss was full of praise for the youngster thrown in at the deep end for just his third Chelsea appearance. The other two were as 89th minute substitutes, by the way.

“Beautiful. Beautiful,” Mourinho said. “Before the match we were laughing about it because big guys like Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole they had their debuts in the Premier League against small teams. And then this kid, Liverpool, Anfield, it is beautiful for him. He will not forget it.”

I was at Anfield on Sunday to watch Mourinho’s men undertake a grueling task. They time-wasted, they antagonized the home crowd and they got under the skins of Liverpool’s players and coaching staff. That was the plan. It worked perfect for Chelsea.

source:
Click to enlarge – Average position of Chelsea’s players vs. Liverpool.
source:
Click to enlarge – Average position of Liverpool’s players vs. Chelsea.

When Liverpool’s right back Glen Johnson made a raking crossfield pass in the second half, it illustrated Chelsea’s compactness perfectly. The back four of Azpilicueta, Ivanovic, Kalas and Cole slid over seamlessly. In front of them the impressive Nemanja Matic and John Obi Mikel (more on their heroics in “three things we learned” right here) sat to clog up spaces for through balls and Chelsea’s wingers, Mohamed Salah on the right and Andre Schurrle on the left, tucked in as full backs. If you look at the picture on the left, you can see the average positions of Chelsea’s players against Liverpool.

You can see that Cole is tucked in almost in line with the left post, while Azpilicueta isn’t hugging the line at all. They entire back four sat on the edge of their penalty box, with Mikel, Matic and even Frank Lampard stationed in front of them.

The shape was sublime and completely nullified the threat of Liverpool’s attackers. In recent weeks both Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho have tucked inside and tried to play in behind Luis Suarez, they did that again on Sunday as you can see on the right from their average positions. Why did Rodgers not ask his men to go wide? They simply gave up.

Mourinho sacrificed the space on the flanks to let Liverpool whip crosses into the box. In open play, Liverpool haven’t got players who can rise high and head home. Sure, they are a threat from set pieces with their center backs going up for corners and free kicks. Yet time and time again they got the ball wide and floated balls in that either Ivanovic or Kalas cleared, or the hugely experienced goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer claimed with ease. It frustrated Liverpool’s lively wingers and they drifted inside to get on the ball. That’s exactly what Mourinho wanted.

When Chelsea broke and scored the second goal to wrap up the victory late on, take a look at Mourinho’s celebration in the video below, right in front of the home fans, as the Blues boss overcame the jibes about his tactical approach and his illness which had kept him away from the team leading up to the game, to put a huge dent in Liverpool’s title ambitions.

STEVEN GERRARD’S SLIP, LIVERPOOL’s NAIVETY

As captain fantastic Steven Gerrard slipped and stumbled before losing the ball as the last man just before half time at Anfield on Sunday, the home crowd held their breath as Demba Ba homed in on Liverpool’s goal. Chelsea towering striker then coolly slotted the ball past the onrushing Simon Mignolet and then… silence. Apart from the dull cheers of Chelsea traveling contingent in the far corner of the ground, the majority of the 44,000 plus fans inside Anfield were stunned.

source: AP
Gerrard’s slip let in Ba to set Chelsea on their way. Should the Liverpool skipper take the blame?

If any other player other than Steven Gerrard had made that mistake, at that crucial point of a game that was so pivotal in the title race, they would’ve be hung, drawn and quartered by the Liverpool faithful. Gerrard is more than just a player, he is the club’s inspirational leader who embodies the ethos and identity of Liverpool Football Club. Instead, as Anfield awoke from its stunned silence, the Kop began to chant Gerrard’s name. “Steve Gerrard, Gerrard,” as the England captain proved his immortality with Liverpool’s fans.

He made a mistake, but he’s made several high profile errors before. most notably two eerily similar back passes which were intercepted by first Thierry Henry in England’s opening group game of Euro 2004 and then when Liverpool were leading Arsenal late on in 2005 at Highbury. That’s right, we remember those two instances because they were so rare. They stick out like a sore thumb because 999 times out of 1,000 Gerrard makes the right decision, the right pass and the right move.

Whatever way you slice it up, Gerrard’s slip let Manchester City back into the title race. Liverpool’s manager still didn’t blame his skipper afterwards.

“This was a boy who has picked up this club time and time again,” Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers said. “It was unfortunate. There is certainly no blame. We are in the position we are in because of him, he has been instrumental for us this season. It is just unfortunate he slipped over, it could’ve happened to anyone.”

Then Rodgers went on a rampage against Mourinho and Chelsea’s defensive tactics. We all know Rodgers loves to play attacking soccer, but what he said about his former employers was just plain wrong. Criticizing Chelsea’s style and saying “it is not difficult to coach” was a mistake from Rodgers. He set up his side naively on Sunday, as Liverpool went for the win when all they really needed was a draw. Rodgers’ flamboyant nature to persist with a swashbuckling style when Liverpool only needed to pick up a point was naïve. He should have resisted the urge to play Coutinho and Sterling from the start and tried to have coaxed Chelsea out of their ultra-defensive setup by keeping the ball at the back. The apprentice failed to handle the master’s tactics, as Liverpool must now rely on others slipping up if they’re going to win the title.

“You saw it today, there was probably two buses parked today instead of one,” Rodgers said. “It is a style of football. It is totally the opposite of what we want and our offensive mentality and direction. Give credit to them they won the game with bodies back in but it is not difficult to coach… 10 players on the edge of their penalty box. I was disappointed, with it. They got booked for time-wasting in the 93nd minute. Everyone could see from the start that was the plan, to frustrate.”

RELEGATION: SUNDERLAND & WEST BROM SURGE, FULHAM COLLAPSE

It was a big weekend for the bottom clubs in the PL last weekend, as Sunderland and West Brom have themselves every chance of getting out of trouble. As for Norwich, Fulham and Cardiff, only two games separate them from the dreaded drop.

Sunderland are in sensational form, as the Black Cats looked dead certs to stay up after a mammoth week for Gus Poyet’s men. Two weeks ago, it wasn’t looking so pretty for the Mackems as following their 5-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur I was in Poyet’s press conference where he said it would take a “miracle” and something “unique” for Sunderland to stay up. Well Gus, you have your miracle. Almost. Look at the image above and you can see how tight this race against relegation is. Wowza.

The Black Cats have drawn away at Man City, beat Chelsea away and then smashed sorry Cardiff 4-0 at home on Sunday. Sunderland are out of the relegation for the first time since February 10, as Connor Wickham has emerged as an unlikely hero with five goals in his last three games. As for the Baggies, they ground out a crucial win over West Ham thanks to Saido Berahino’s early goal. That 1-0 win lifts Pepe Mel’s side four points above the bottom three with a game in hand. They should, should being the operative word, be safe. As for Norwich, they slip into the drop zone on goal difference after losing to Manchester United and the Canaries’ final two games are against Chelsea and Arsenal. Villa are only two points above Norwich, as Paul Lambert’s side haven’t won in six and were hammered 4-1 away at Swansea as their woeful end to the campaign continues.

Then we come to Fulham. Felix Magath’s side blew their chance to get out of the bottom three on Saturday, big time. Leading 2-0 with 15 minutes to play against Hull City, the Cottagers hit the self-destruct button as calamitous defending saw them drop deeper and deeper, as the Tigers pounced twice late on to bag a 2-2 draw and deal Magath’s men a hammer blow.

Rebecca and the boys analyze the relegation run-in above, as this crazy PL season keeps twisting and turning right until the very end.

Premier League Playback takes an alternative look at all the weekend’s action from the PL, it comes out every week.

Chelsea-Man City: Five stars who shone (and five more who went dim)

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03:  Cesc Fabregas of Chelsea celebrates his team's third goal scored by Eden Hazard (not pictured) during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Chelsea at Etihad Stadium on December 3, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
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Selecting Chelsea’s best from an all-around strong game was a struggle, certainly harder than identifying the men who hurt Manchester City’s chances of going atop the Premier League in a 3-1 match at Stamford Bridge on Saturday .

City had a lot of passengers, to be sure, as Antonio Conte got the better of Pep Guardiola in their first ever match-up (one that tactically delivered even if City’s players didn’t hold up their end of the bargain).

[ MORE: Match recap | Chelsea’s decisive goals ]

Forgive us for not going 22-deep with the player ratings this fine American morning, but here are 10 players who sincerely impacted the match for better or worse.

Stars who shone…

Diego Costa — Chelsea’s big forward was an absolute force, and would deserve his shine on the basis of his goal alone. His classy chest trap of Cesc Fabregas’ fantastic long offering allowed him the moment to boss Nicolas Otamendi, and the finish past Claudio Bravo was no problem. Then he turned well to play Willian in for the second goal, completing his day with an assist before walking off injured.

N'Golo KanteWe’re unsure the Chelsea engine has truly poor games, to be honest, and the French midfielder again showed his class (even if there’s some debate as to whether his risky but successful first-half tackle on Ilkay Gundogan could’ve been ruled a penalty). This is the sort of player who bears watching off the ball, because he’s likely going to where the opposition is trying to place it.

Cesc Fabregas — Set up Costa’s opening goal, and could’ve easily had a second assist when Eden Hazard darted around Bravo only to opt for a pass rather than a tight-angled shot on goal. Conte’s inspired decision to start him will be lauded in the fallout.

Cesar Azpilicueta — The least heralded of Chelsea’s backs was lively in the win, and had spells in which he was in charge of his side of the field. Well done, Dave.

Kevin De Bruyne (for 89 minutes and 59 seconds) — Hear me out… Can one moment quash a match with plenty of bright moments? The Belgian star was very good for Chelsea, apart from missing a sitter on the doorstep. De Bruyne’s lunging effort could’ve made it 2-0, as KDB was inches from scoring but couldn’t keep his body forward enough during the lunge. He’s gotta slide, unfortunately, and doesn’t (doubly so).


 

…And those who went dim

Nicolas Otamendi — He’ll need to turn the page on this one in a hurry. Otamendi was victimized by Costa on the first goal, and then caught in no man’s land on the second. A rough day for a strong player.

Gary Cahill — Yeah, it’s a bit easy to call out a man who scored an own goal, especially one who cleared a later effort off the line, but the Englishman’s finish behind his keeper was a poor decision to use the wrong foot. And it put his team down a goal.

Sergio Aguero — Far too little to like from the Man City man, who added a heaping of injury to his insulting night when he committed a horror tackle on David Luiz late. Sent off, this means a chance for Kelechi Iheanacho to shine in perhaps several matches. A striker of his quality has to find a goal in matches like this, or face criticism.

Fernandinho — On the same note, here’s a man who didn’t have a poor match on the pitch but cost his team big with a hands to the throat of Fabregas and a shove over the advertising boards that made the red card unavoidable for Anthony Taylor. These next few games will be difficult for City.

Claudio Bravo —  Perhaps a bit harsh, but City wants to win the Champions League and Premier League. A top-end goalkeeper has to find a way to stop that second goal. Dare-we-say that Joe Hart is a better shot-stopper than the Chilean?

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Three things we learned from Chelsea’s win vs. Man City

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Chelsea beat Man City 3-1 at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday with Antonio Conte‘s men putting down a big marker in their title push.

[ MORE: Recap as Chelsea win ]

Diego Costa, Willian and Eden Hazard scored Chelsea’s goal as the Blues have now won eight-straight games and in turn they put Pep Guardiola and City in their place.

Here’s what we learned from a gripping, absorbing encounter.


WING BACK BATTLE

Both teams opted for wing backs and the result was a bit chaotic.

For Man City they had attacking wingers in Jesus Navas and Leroy Sane in the wide position and they just looked so uncomfortable in those defensive positions. Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses grew in stature as the game wore on, although they had plenty more defensive work in the first half than they’ve had in recent months since Chelsea switched to a 3-4-3 formation.

Guardiola has switched between a three-man central defense and four at the back and it’s quite clear his players aren’t comfortable with either as of yet.

After making uncharacteristic mistakes in the first 50 minutes, Conte’s Chelsea looked very comfortable in the second half and Moses and Alonso both surged forward and looked much more adept defensively.

Guardiola’s gamble to match Chelsea’s wing backs backfired. Out of the four wing backs on the pitch, there’s no doubting that Chelsea’s two prevailed.


COSTA PUTS CHELSEA ON HIS BACK

With Chelsea trailing 1-0 at half time and barely having a sniff at goal in the first half, plus struggling defensively, it was time for Diego Costa to step up. He did. Big time.

The Spanish striker chased, harried and bullied his way into the game and Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones had no answer for his clever movement, persistent pressure and rambunctious behavior.

Costa has quality too.

The 28-year-old latched on to Cesc Fabregas’ perfect through ball (is this the 2014-15 season!?) and chested down before finishing to make it 1-1 and less than 10 minutes later he played in Willian to put Chelsea ahead. Costa has now scored 11 goals and added five assists this season as he continues to be Conte’s main man.

Late on Costa had to come off injured with what looked like an injured lower back and the Spanish international will be nursed back to fitness as his importance to Chelsea is clear.

If Costa goes down injured or gets suspended — he’s been on four bookings for quite some time and a fifth will mean a suspension, but he seems more controlled and mature this campaign — Chelsea will be struggling. If he stays fit and in form, they will continue to be favorites to win the league.


CITY NEED NEW CENTER BACKS

Quite simply, Man City were all over the place in defense.

With Otamendi, Stones and Aleksandar Kolarov pushed to play from the back by Guardiola, they never looked comfortable on Saturday and with two wingers playing at full back, they didn’t have the cover they needed when they pushed forward into midfield when on the ball.

Tactically, Chelsea got at City’s defense in the second half and with Otamendi on a yellow card for scything down Costa in the first half, he was walking a tightrope for the rest of the game. Stones was subbed out with 15 minutes to go and without Vincent Kompany in central defense, City couldn’t stop Chelsea flooding forward and getting in-behind them.

This game had everything. City could’ve scored more goals with Kevin De Bruyne somehow hitting the bar from four yards out and Sergio Aguero being denied by Thibaut Courtois and goal line clearances, but the biggest issue for Guardiola is sorting his side out defensively.

With all of their spending on forwards and midfielders over the summer, it’s clear City need to spend big in January on a center back (or find a better solution from within) if they’re going to finish in the top four and challenge for the title. City are just four points off the top but they’ve lost to Tottenham and Chelsea this season in a very similar fashion.

Man City 1-3 Chelsea: Eight-straight wins for table-topping Blues

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  • Cahill own goal gives City the lead
  • Costa, Willian, Hazard scores
  • City finish game with nine-men
  • Chelsea win eight-straight in PL

Chelsea passed their biggest test yet as Antonio Conte‘s side fought back from 1-0 down to beat nine-man Manchester City 3-1 at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday to seal their eighth-straight Premier League win.

An own goal from Gary Cahill right on half time gave Man City the lead but two goals in 10 minutes from Diego Costa and Willian turned the game on its head as City squandered chances and Chelsea put in a perfect away display with Eden Hazard adding another in stoppage time, plus Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho were both sent off in stoppage time as tempers flared.

With the win Chelsea remains top of the PL table on 34 points, while City remain on 30 points after they suffered a second defeat of the season.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

City had a penalty shout early on as David Silva tried to squirm free of Cahill and the Chelsea defender knocked the ball with his arm, but referee Anthony Taylor waved away the claims.

Chelsea then went close as Hazard curled a low shot just wide and moments later the first booking of the game arrived as Nicolas Otamendi clattered into Costa and received a yellow card.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Aguero then went close as he took two touches to settle himself and smashed a high effort in on goal but Thibaut Courtois pushed the effort over.

The game then exploded into life as Fernandinho finished Kevin De Bruyne‘s free kick but he was in an offside position and the flag went up. Seconds later Hazard raced clear and took the ball past Claudio Bravo but instead of shooting into an empty net from a slightly tight angle, he instead tried to pick out a teammate and City cleared.

A controversial moment than arrived as Aguero and David Luiz collided with the Chelsea man the last line in defense but Taylor didn’t award a foul. Aguero was denied from close-range by Cesar Azpilicueta’s block and before the break City were ahead.

Jesus Navas’ cross from the right was hooked towards his own goal by Cahill as he tried to clear with his right foot and it flew into the opposite top corner of the net. 1-0 to Man City.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

At the start of the second half City had a good chance to double their lead as Leroy Sane surged forward and set up De Bruyne but his shot was blocked down low by Courtois. Then at the other end a mistake by Sane allowed Costa to run into the box but his shot went wide of the near post.

At the other end Aguero nipped in to seize on a moment of hesitation between Cahill and Courtois but Cahill then cleared Aguero’s effort off the line. De Bruyne then somehow hit the crossbar from four yards out with the goal gaping after a flowing City move and that miss was to prove costly.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

In the 60th minute Chelsea were level as Cesc Fabreags (only in the team because Nemanja Matic was injured) sent through a perfect long ball which Costa chested down and fired home. 1-1.

Aguero was denied by Courtois once again soon after the scores were level as Chelsa continued to make uncharacteristic mistakes at the back but they broke with pace and punished City to take the lead.

Costa’s hold up play was sublime, once again, and Willian raced clear drilling home a low shot to put Chelsea 2-1 ahead.

Chelsea continued to live life on the edge in defense with Luiz and others making blocks and last-ditch tackles in the box. However, Conte’s men held on comfortably for the win and added to the scoreline as Marcos Alonso‘s long ball forward set free Hazard who raced clear and finished emphatically. 3-1.

Late on Aguero was red carded for a horrible challenge on Luiz and in the melee which ensued Fabregas was pushed into the stands by Fernandinho who was also sent off and City finished the game with nine-men.

All of that nonsense aside, this was a stunning second half display from Chelsea which keeps them top of the Premier League and underlines their title credentials, plus it left Guardiola and his players with plenty of work to do.

WATCH: Brazilian-born Chelsea stars score, honor Chapecoense

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03:  Diego Costa of Chelsea celebrates scoring his team's first goal during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Chelsea at Etihad Stadium on December 3, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
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A day that began with a unified moment of silence for the victims of the Chapecoense plane crash was finished by Chelsea’s Brazilian-born stars.

Diego Costa pointed to his black “Forca Chape” arm band after scoring his equalizer against Manchester City, before David Luiz and Willian held theirs high after putting the Blues ahead.

[ MORE: Cahill’s own goal ]

Here’s the first, supplied by a pinpoint diagonal ball from Cesc Fabregas. Costa chests down the ball before taking care of Nicolas Otamendi to finish past Claudio Bravo. The forward was born in Lagarto, Brazil, and represented the country twice before switching allegiances to Spain.

Then came another terrific bit of service combined with Otamendi problems.

Then Costa sprung his national teammate Willian, whose blaze of speed set him 1v1 with Bravo.

The keeper probably could’ve done better, but the goal set up a poignant moment from the two members of Tite’s Canarinho.

Follow @NicholasMendola