The chaos descended shortly before half-time. Andrew Robertson’s corner from the right precipitated a series of events that would result – roughly several dozen ricochets, a goalline handball, a VAR referral, a full-blown ruck and five minutes later – in Liverpool’s equalising goal. By the time the two sides had finally disappeared down the tunnel, still angrily chirping at each other, the complexion of the game had changed entirely, irrevocably.
It wasn’t just the goal or the contentious dismissal of Reece James, either. It was a tonal shift: the point at which, having played with a cool, implacable detachment for 45 minutes, Chelsea were violently thrown off the scent. After Mohamed Salah had scored the penalty, Édouard Mendy smashed the ball straight at Jordan Henderson in an attempt to prevent him from grabbing it, and a brief but refreshing melee ensued. From the kick-off a rattled N’Golo Kanté put the ball straight out of play. Anfield roared. A man and several eardrums down, the European champions were seemingly there for the taking.
At which point, something strange happened. There was a double substitution for Chelsea, Kanté and Kai Havertz – perhaps their two best players of the first half – making way for Thiago Silva and Mateo Kovacic. The back three made the required spatial adjustments. Thomas Tuchel’s side checked their angles, gave each other a little hug and braced themselves for a siege. And that was that. A second half that had promised carnage and fury simply leaked away like a broken tap.
Of course, Liverpool thudded at the door. There were crosses, half-openings, promising ricochets that, given a couple more promising ricochets, may have led to something. There were hopeful long shots that made little sense except on the emotional level, corners that brought the Kop to the brink of combustion before inevitably being headed away. But despite enjoying 68% possession and 14 shots after the break, Liverpool departed without ever really threatening to penetrate the layers of blue massed before them.
You could look at this in one of two ways, I suppose. On one hand, Liverpool managed – with the help of a little fortune, some perseverance, a partisan crowd, Anthony Taylor and Law 12 of the rules of football – to swing the momentum of a game that had been tilting away from them. Had the pattern of the first 45 minutes been repeated over 90, Chelsea would almost certainly have run out comfortable winners.
But perhaps the real achievement here was Chelsea’s second-half rearguard, a triumph not just of resolve and bravery and tactical discipline but of emotional control, of muffling out the noise and playing the game on your own terms. And to understand why this was such a seismic achievement you needed to examine the 45 minutes, or perhaps even the seven months, that preceded it.
Since taking over at Chelsea at the start of the year, Tuchel has managed to craft a ruthless, perfectly calibrated winning machine that succeeds not through throttling adrenalin rush but by a supreme command of angles, space and above all itself. The few teams that have had some joy against them – West Brom in April, Leicester in the FA Cup final – are the ones that have managed to raise the temperature, get into their heads, drag them into a scrap.
Édouard Mendy and Jordan Henderson clash after Liverpool’s penalty. Photograph: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty Images
The pivotal goalmouth scramble at the end of the first half felt like one of those moments. It was a slice of genuine park football, which with its flying limbs and heaving cries felt a little like a medieval battle scene from a 1990s action movie: the kind they now do with CGI.
As furious Chelsea players rounded on Taylor, as the two teams scuffled at the break, you wondered if Liverpool had finally succeeded in shifting the battle on to their territory.
But then came that restive second half, a largely shapeless half from a Liverpool viewpoint, one that came and went in a rush of crosses and hormones. Every gap was shut as quickly as it opened; every blue shirt had another in support. On the bench, Tuchel cut an unhurried figure in his elastane-enriched training jersey, confident in his team’s spacing and kerning, calmly stroking his chin like a man who had just completed a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.
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It was an absorbing, thrilling game: one that will probably have little bearing on the title race but may just define the contours of these two sides, where they might be strong and weak. Liverpool can be an irresistible force with the wind at their backs, when chaos reigns and the sabres are rattling, but their lack of precision will be a worry.
Chelsea, by contrast, showed that they can be hurt during those fleeting moments when they are dragged out of their comfort zone. But much like the spaces in their defence: as soon as you think you glimpse one, it’s gone.