Liverpool and Chelsea all square after Capital One Cup semi-final first leg
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho still has not won a semifinal against Liverpool after Raheem Sterling’s flash of brilliance earned the Reds a deserved 1-1 draw in the opening leg of their Capital One Cup clash.
During his first spell in charge, the Stamford Bridge boss came off second best in last-four clashes against the Merseysiders in the Champions League, twice, and FA Cup.
The League Cup can now be added to that after Eden Hazard’s 18th-minute penalty was cancelled out by the England international on the hour.
It will not matter to the Portuguese manager, however, as he will be confident they can get the job done in next week’s second leg.
Yet Liverpool counterpart Brendan Rodgers, formerly a member of Mourinho’s coaching staff, and his side will have gained great confidence from this performance.
They restricted the visitors, lining up with the Premier League’s leading scorer Diego Costa, to just one shot on target all game.
The downside was Liverpool created 19 chances, six on target, but could only come away with a draw.
Pre-match, Rodgers said he felt they could go to Stamford Bridge and win and that will now be required, by whatever means necessary, but the advantage remains with Chelsea.
Considering the history between the clubs there was plenty of simmering tension in the first half but it never transferred into real chances.
Just three shots on target were registered, with Chelsea’s solitary effort the penalty.
It came about through Emre Can’s naivety, which in some ways is understandable considering he was only thrust into the left-sided centre-back in a three-man defence on Boxing Day.
His first mistake was to allow Cesc Fabregas to skip past him far too easily to reach the byline, his second was to compound his error by trying to recover the situation by connecting with Hazard.
It may not have been the hardest of challenges but referee Mike Atkinson pointed to the spot and Hazard sent Simon Mignolet the wrong way.
It was familiar storyline, last seen back in April when Mourinho’s side derailed Liverpool’s title bid after capitalising on Steven Gerrard’s slip and then defending the life out of the game.
All the meaningful possession had been the hosts, with Philippe Coutinho showing he could add desire and influence to his talents with the ball.
The fleet-footed Brazilian left the experienced John Terry trailing in his wake with one shuffle and had a shot deflected over.
In between he pulled the strings in the zone 20 yards outside Chelsea’s penalty area, showing an improved relationship with central striker Sterling.
Gerrard’s dipping drive from 30 yards, only just tipped over by Thibaut Courtois, was their best chance although the last action of the half had an incensed Rodgers encroaching on to the pitch claiming a penalty after the ball appeared to hit the hand of Costa laid on the floor.
With a lead in the bag, Chelsea did exactly what Mourinho asked them to in terms of recovering their shape whenever they lost possession and then hitting on the counter-attack.
The Portuguese had planned exactly for this eventuality — you could almost say inevitability — by bringing Jon Obi Mikel in alongside regular midfield colossus Nemanja Matic.
When Rodgers talks about a box in midfield he is referring to it in an attacking sense. Mourinho employed his own box but this one 20 or 30 yards deeper.
Very rarely was there more than 15 yards between Chelsea’s midfield pair and central defenders Terry and Gary Cahill, shutting down the space Coutinho and Gerrard, in a more advanced role, wanted to work in.
The invention had to come from deeper and when Jordan Henderson slid a pass down the centre Sterling went past Matic before the Serbia international could react, raced past Cahill into the area and beat Courtois.
It was the first goal Chelsea’s mean defence had conceded in 341 minutes and all of a sudden the visitors were properly under the cosh.
This seemed to be the game the 22-year-old Coutinho came of age and his run set up Gerrard to hit the post with a placed left-footed shot before the Brazil international forced Courtois into a low save and Martin Skrtel headed over.
Chelsea’s goalkeeper was by far the busier and was at his best to save from Henderson and then react quickly to block Sterling’s rebound before palming away substitute Adam Lallana’s volley.
The Belgian’s performance may just prove to be the one that takes them to Wembley.
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