UK (The Guardian)-Mohamed Salah reminded Chelsea of the talent they declined to nurture with his 10th Premier League goal of the season but his and Liverpool’s celebrations were ultimately contained. Willian, an 83rd-minute substitute, spared the champions from a fourth Premier League defeat of the season with a fortuitous equaliser.
The Brazil international cancelled out Salah’s strike with an attempted cross that deceived the stranded Simon Mignolet. Chelsea will argue they merited their slice of fortune following an impressive first half display. Liverpool held the edge throughout the second and were on course for a morale-boosting fourth consecutive home league win until three points, and Willian’s effort, sailed out of Mignolet’s finger-tips.
The long flight back from Qarabag in the early hours of Thursday showed no after-effects on Eden Hazard. He must have been in first class. Chelsea’s immaculate playmaker was at the heart of almost every threat in the first half, and there were plenty as Chelsea created the better openings. They were content to sit deep and absorb Liverpool pressure but with Hazard finding pockets of space to orchestrate proceedings they also carried a frequent threat.
Both teams contributed to an absorbing, intriguing game. Both managers also freshened things up after midweek Champions League trips by making five changes to the teams that started in Azerbaijan and Seville.
Even allowing for the second-half collapse in Andalusia and an intensive schedule of 13 matches in 44 days, it was a surprise Liverpool started without Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané against such a well-drilled defence. Jürgen Klopp shifted two-thirds of his first-choice attack to the bench as Daniel Sturridge made his fifth league start of the campaign and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain a second. The pair worked hard but without reward or quality service.
Liverpool’s collective effort impressed, particularly when covering for each other defensively and regaining possession quickly, but they struggled to turn territorial advantage into a clear sight of Thibaut Courtois’s goal.
Their most potent outlet came from Salah on the right. The former under-used Chelsea player was closest to a breakthrough in the first half when he spun Gary Cahill on the edge of the area and curled a left-foot shot just wide. Otherwise, with James Milner slicing horribly wide when better options were available, the home side rarely troubled Courtois.
Chelsea held the edge in terms of opportunity with the polished Hazard to the fore. Controlling a high ball from Danny Drinkwater on the left, he drifted inside Ragnar Klavan and Joe Gomez to force the first save of the game from Mignolet with a powerful low drive. He then turned away brilliantly from Jordan Henderson to release Drinkwater clear of the Liverpool defence but the midfielder, making his first Premier League start since his summer move from Leicester City , hesitated before making an unconvincing attempt to round Mignolet.
The Liverpool keeper also foiled Davide Zappacosta when the right wing-back let fly with an angled drive. The resulting corner by Hazard found Cahill unmarked at the back post and, though unable to create space for the shot, the defender teed up Drinkwater for a blocked effort that sparked pandemonium in the Liverpool box. Marcos Alonso also went close with a trademark free-kick from 25 yards.
Liverpool began the second half with more aggression and, with the previously anonymous Philippe Coutinho seeing more of the ball, greater intent. Klopp’s decision to swap Salah and Oxlade-Chamberlain to the left and right flanks respectively improved their contributions too.
Sturridge almost caught out Courtois with an impudent flick on the turn that the Chelsea keeper fumbled for a corner. He also had a goal-bound shot blocked superbly by César Azpilicueta having been found in space by Salah who, in accordance with the inevitable script, returned to haunt his old club moments later.
Salah’s influence had been increasing throughout the second half but a Liverpool attack appeared to have been nullified when Coutinho’s pass rolled into the path of Tiémoué Bakayoko outside the Chelsea area. The midfielder failed to intercept at full stretch, however, and the alert Oxlade-Chamberlain nudged the loose ball on to his Egyptian team-mate. Salah took one touch in his stride before beating Courtois with a clinical finish inside the near post.
Out of respect for his former employers the £36.9m summer signing from Roma kept his celebration restrained. Klopp did not, and replaced Sturridge with Georginio Wijnaldum in an attempt to protect Liverpool’s advantage once his emotions had cooled.
Until Willian’s fortunate intervention the tactic appeared to have succeeded. Chelsea were limited in their threat after the interval, failing to convert a flowing counter-attack led by Hazard and an inviting volley at the back post for Alonso from a Zappacosta cross. But with five minutes remaining they drew level.
Willian, who had replaced the Italian defender two minutes earlier, had few options when he collected Hazard’s pass and drifted beyond Klavan to the corner of the penalty area. The Brazilian aimed a cross to the far post but instead it sailed over Mignolet, standing off his line and unable to save with his finger-tips, and dropped into the net.
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