Olivier Giroud’s first-half header was enough to secure a much-needed win over Liverpool to keep Chelsea’s Champions League hopes alive. The Frenchman’s goal will get the plaudits but the stout defensive work of the entire back line in blue has to be recognised. The likes of Salah, Mane and Firmino were kept relatively quiet and it was a former Chelsea striker who brought the biggest threat late on.
Antonio Conte reverted to his 3-5-2 formation that had seen success in the last few weeks as Tiemoue Bakayoko has come back into the side. Marcos Alonso also returned from suspension to replace Emerson despite the January signing’s impressive displays during Alonso’s absence. The visitors started the game on the front foot, having the vast majority of possession as the Blues attempted to keep them away from Thibaut Courtois’ goal. Roberto Firmino found himself in space on the right side of the Chelsea penalty area but his effort was denied by Courtois who got down low to keep it out.
In the opposite box, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Olivier Giroud got in each other’s way from Victor Moses’ cut-back; Giroud just poking the ball beyond his compatriot with the midfielder in a better shooting position. Marcos Alonso and Sadio Mane had shots saved while N’Golo Kante showed his world-class ability to track back by dispossessing Mane on the stretch from a Liverpool counter attack. The Senegalese winger was twice denied by Courtois minutes later before the Belgian set the hosts going forward.
Victor Moses found himself in an advanced position down the Chelsea right and, after cutting back onto his left foot, clipped in a cross that had Olivier Giroud’s name on it. The former Arsenal striker got ahead of Dejan Lovren and planted his header in the far corner, leaving Lorus Karius standing and watching. Despite their slender lead, Chelsea kept pushing forward and twice went close but neither Bakayoko nor Cesc Fabregas could guide their efforts the right side of the far post. Mo Salah, struggling to have an impact on the game, was booked for diving just before half time, much to the amusement of the Stamford Bridge crowd.
Under the sweltering sun of West London, certain players were thriving under the heat of the day and the pressure of the match. Eden Hazard and Antonio Rudiger in particular produced some eye-catching displays at either ends of the pitch. Hazard was driving forward at every opportunity, causing mayhem across the Liverpool backline – something people had expected Mo Salah to do for the visitors. A combination of Rudiger and Alonso were keeping him quiet and with Chelsea’s low defensive line, Salah couldn’t find any space to threaten Courtois’ goal. Their fine performances continued after the break and Chelsea almost doubled their lead but Moses’ cross evaded its targets in the penalty area, as well as the far post.
N’Golo Kante was harrying in midfield and even Tiemoue Bakayoko was having a good game. For most of the second period, the Blues were happy to soak up the lacklustre Liverpool pressure and hit the Reds on the counter, with Hazard going closest after wriggling through several opposition players. Towards the end of the half, Moses marauded down the right yet again and found his fellow wing-back, Marcos Alonso, at the back post. With the ball landing just behind him, Alonso shifted his body and executed his volley almost to perfection. His rocketing effort whistled past the far post, much to Karius’ relief.
By that time, former Chelsea striker Dominic Solanke had been introduced for the Champions League finalists, and his physicality was causing problems in the Chelsea penalty area. Gary Cahill, who had been exceptional all game, was trying to keep tabs on the youngster but couldn’t prevent him from having a couple of late opportunities. Solanke leapt highest to meet a cross and almost found the top corner, only to see the ball land on the roof of the net. Deep into stoppage time, Solanke also got his head to a cross but this time his effort was less accurate and flew well past the near post.
The hosts weren’t exactly comfortable in the defence of their lead but managed to hold on for three crucial points in their hunt for a Champions League spot. They can now draw level on points with Liverpool if they win their game in hand on Wednesday against Huddersfield. Tottenham are also catch-able after their loss against desperate West Brom on Saturday. Any slip-ups from those two could open the door for the Blues, a situation that seemed incredibly unlikely a few weeks ago.