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Three Thoughts: Wastefulness, Poor Subs Overshadow a Fine Defensive Performance

    Liverpool headed to Stamford Bridge determined to get a result, on the heels of a home draw that easily could have seen the Reds seize control of the tie, but for the brilliance of Thibault Courtois. The Reds started brightly, but ran out of both energy and ideas in the closing stages, surrendering a Branislav Ivanovic header in the first period of extra time to fall short of reaching Wembley. Here's Reds fan Joel Tracy on a hard-fought yet ultimately disappointing result against the top side in England:

1) Finishing woes continue.

 

After losing Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge to Barcelona and an Oregon Trail-esque string of calamities, respectively, this Liverpool side was always going to struggle to find goals. Those struggles continued against the dominant Courtois, with the Belgian producing a pair of fine saves to deny the away side, despite fine linking play from the Reds in the opening forty-five.

 

A fantastic ball from Gerrard saw Moreno through on the left. The Spaniard took an extra touch, allowing Courtois to brilliantly keep out his effort when a first-time shot may have been the wiser choice. Hesitation again proved as deadly as the Chelsea keeper as Raheem Sterling, released by a great Jordan Henderson ball from deep took one dribble too many rather than pull back for Gerrard, with the skipper bursting forward from midfield, intent on releasing a trademark blast from the edge of the area. In contrast, Philippe Coutinho showed plenty of conviction, ghosting past Kurt Zouma on the edge of the area, before firing a low, left-footed effort, parried away by the outstretched hand of Courtois.

 

Sterling proved to have learned his lesson from the first half, teeing up Gerrard after drawing the attention of the Chelsea backline. Gerrard failed to muster the necessary power on the effort, comfortably saved by the Belgian Number One. Wasteful efforts from substitutes Balotelli and Lambert proved costly, though perhaps Liverpool's best chance of the evening was spurned by Henderson. Sterling made something out of nothing wide to the left, jinking past Ivanovic to chip across goal, only for the vice captain to head wide with Courtois' goal left gaping. After yet another display of profligacy in a match that was rumoured to see Daniel Sturridge return to the matchday squad, it's clear the striker's return can't come soon enough.

 

2) Defence impresses.

 

Liverpool's suddenly formidable defence held Chelsea to a pair of shots in the first leg at Anfield, but the trip to London for the return engagement was always going to see the home side put more pressure on the Reds' back line. Diego Costa showed all the sportsmanship of Bill Murray's Ernie McCracken from the movie Kingpin, stamping on both Emre Can and Martin Skrtel in spineless (albeit sly) fashion. Against the threat of the league's leading scorer, however, Skrtel in particular did well to limit Costa's impact, although the inked-up Slovakian was fortunate to escape punishment for a clumsy challenge on the striker that could easily have seen referee Michael Oliver point to the spot.

 

Left fairly exposed by Moreno on the left flank, Mamadou Sakho stood up to the threat of Willian, despite being drawn out wide due to a lack of cover-although some sloppy passing from the Frenchman almost cost the Reds. Emre Can held up well on the opposite side of Skrtel, although Eden Hazard left the German and his midfield cover Henderson chasing ghosts for much of the evening.

 

Liverpool were forced to do much more bending at the back than they have done of late in registering a clean sheet in half of their previous eight matches. That they did not break over yet another ninety minutes of football, despite Chelsea's considerable quality owed much to the performance of Simon Mignolet in goal. The much-maligned Belgian submitted perhaps his finest display of the campaign (a distinction that admittedly carries about as much weight as determining the finest effort produced by Mario Balotelli's hairstylist), combining the best of his shot-stopping prowess with a newfound command of his area.

 

After a wicked deflection seemingly diverted Diego Costa's driven effort away from Mignolet's dive, the Belgian, flying towards his right post lifted his left leg for a stunning reaction save to keep out the striker's effort. Mignolet wasn't finished denying the Michael Flatley impersonator, however, as he stood tall with a textbook standing tackle to dispossess Costa on the doorstep after a potentially calamitous backwards touch from Henderson.

 

In a biting post match critique, Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho accused his Liverpool counterpart of hypocrisy, noting that Rodgers cited Courtois' influence on the match without acknowledging the heroics of his own goalkeeper. While Mignolet appears destined to play second fiddle to the Chelsea phenom for their native Belgium, the Reds' keeper stood up to be counted on a massive stage-and at least for a night, he deserved to share that stage with his world class compatriot.

 

Considering what he's been through over the past two months, that feat is a testament to Mignolet's character. With neither a replacement nor meaningful competition likely to arrive before the close of the January transfer window, Reds fans can only hope a corner has been turned by their man between the sticks-due in no small part to the play of the three men charged with his protection.

 

3) Rodgers' substitutes fall flat.

 

Throughout the campaign Rodgers has been criticised for his team selections, and perhaps even more so for his substitutions. At times the Northern Irishman has waited too long to utilise the options available to him on the bench (if he's done so at all), while at others he has approached his changes with the attitude of a drunken lonely heart at last call, throwing out a few hail marys in the hope that one will find its target.

 

Tuesday's clash was one such occasion, although a second half injury to Sakho forced the manager into a decision between "damned if you do" and "damned if you don't" with his first alteration. Rodgers opted for the latter, leaving Dejan Lovren on the bench to ponder his wholly deserved exile from the lineup and bringing in highway robber Glen Johnson on his unfavored left side. Johnson predictably struggled in one or two encounters with the electric Hazard, who drifted over to Chelsea's right on occasion after Johnson's introduction, like a shark closing in on some overmatched flounder. Despite being played out of position however, the Englishman fared reasonably well after being called upon. Rodgers' two final subs, in contrast, left much more to be desired.

 

After his Reds had for so long stood toe-to-toe with the top side in the Premier League, assailing (though largely failing to breach) the Chelsea goal with a combination of creative movement and incisive passing, Rodgers opted to bring on two players who offered neither. With his side one goal away from reaching a Wembley final, Rodgers pored over the options left on his bench and selected...Mario Balotelli. With the movement and technique of Adam Lallana-water in the desert for a Liverpool side whose energy and attacking threat had waned since the interval-available on the bench, the introduction of the Italian was a particularly puzzling decision.

 

Days earlier Rodgers dusted off his trusty "Look, over there! Balotelli's doing things!" technique, pointing towards his enigmatic striker's subpar effort in training while sweeping another disappointing result under the rug. Their manager's hypocrisy must not have been lost on the unused squad members, not least of all Fabio Borini, whose energetic, if limited performances hadn't even earned him a place on the bench.

 

After coming on Balotelli looked every bit a player whose training ground application had been criticised by his manager. With the exception of a clever backheel on the edge of the Chelsea area, his play was seemingly bereft of thought, as the striker settled for audacious, off-target efforts that forced nothing from Courtois-save perhaps a laugh. The Italian ambled around the edge of the box in possession and offered token effort in the pressing game, a square peg in a round hole amidst a side that had developed no small measure of chemistry in the Italian's absence.

 

Rodgers did his Reds no favours with his third and final substitution, doubling down on ponderous frontmen with the introduction of Rickie Lambert. The number nine often shifted out wide to accommodate Balotelli through the middle, leading to a pair of hopeful crosses looped into the box by perhaps the only player who might otherwise have proved capable of nodding one home.

 

In search of a late goal, Rodgers had decided to bolster his attack by introducing a pair of strikers off the bench. In the end, the manager's substitutions only left his side further from breaching the Chelsea backline - and in the process, they cost his side the clean sheet they had worked so hard to maintain (Balotelli's contribution to Chelsea's goal can't be overlooked). On the one hand it's difficult to blame Rodgers; in his time as Liverpool manager no lead - let alone a draw - has been safe and he had to feel a goal was needed at some point.

 

It's difficult to imagine, however, a more obtuse solution to that problem than sending on a pair of lumbering, out of form strikers whose respective styles fail to mesh with that of Liverpool's attacking play. We'll never know what might have happened had Rodgers introduced Lallana, for example, rather than Balotelli. But I hope the manager has wondered at just that. Perhaps, then, he'll choose his substitutions more carefully next time around.

 

Joel Tracy

@Jtras2


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