From 1-3 to 4-3; Chelsea loanee Nathan Aké seals Cherries’ comeback.
Bournemouth 4 Liverpool 3
The minute was seventy sixth. The place: Vitality Stadium, Bournemouth’s own half of the pitch located in front of the Ted MacDougall’s stand. The personas: five Liverpool players trying to launch yet another vicious attack with Divock Origi holding onto the ball. The Belgian striker, with some space still in front of him, could do anything: start to dribble, do a turn and pass backwards or spray it wide to incoming Nathaniel Clyne. But no: he’s decided to play a short pass through the middle, to Roberto Firmino, despite having two opposition’s players standing in the way. Fifteen seconds later, the ball was in the back of his team’s net, a 2-3 result has appeared on the scoreboard and the hosts have started the most remarkable comeback in their clubs’ 117 years-long history.
Of course, the problem with that situation goes much deeper than just one misplaced pass by LFC’s backup striker. After all, just two touches exchanged between Jack Wilshere and Benik Afobe have led to no less than seven visitors’ players being caught out in the opposition’s half, completely unable to make any defensive contribution against incoming counterattack. In many circumstances, the following four-versus-three situation in your own half would’ve been still an acceptable thing to occur. But at 3-1 lead with less than fifteen minutes until the end of the match? No way. Even Manchester United, as bland and pale as they are these days, had the common sense to shut the shop on the opening day and leave the south coast with three points in hand. Liverpool always looked too fired up to be this pragmatic.
To make things worse, a one-goal lead has induced a blatant nervousness among the players in yellow and black jerseys. Well, actually, let’s be honest: already when Joël Matip (minor ankle injury) didn’t make the team sheet, they got visibly shaken. Without the Cameroonian centre-back, the weight of keeping things tight at the back fell on Dejan Lovren’s shoulders – and the Croat crumbled in the second half. People will blame James Milner’s poor challenge on Ryan Fraser; well, without Lovren’s awkward, headed clearance that was picked up by Wilson, Milner would not be forced to make that challenge in the first place. And then – there was Fraser’s goal. And then – there was Cook’s equalizer with about eight Liverpool players around him. And then – Cherries went on and won the game.
Ironically, this all happened immediately after Reds have finally managed to pick up two consecutive Premier League clean sheets – a feat so rare, that they’ve only managed to pull it off three times last season. Away at Southampton, the team has conceded only three shots and did not even force Loris Karius to make a single save. A week ago, LFC have comfortably shut down Sunderland’s Jeremain Defoe and the veteran striker was reduced to having only a single shot through the entire game (which, by the way, was blocked). To go from that kind of defending to conceding four at Bournemouth – it is nothing but a disaster. But again: things would’ve been completely different had Liverpool adapted more conservative tactics by the end of the match instead of frantically trying to put the final nail in the Cherries’ coffin.
Well – at least next week, Reds will not have to worry about more of the same happening. They are facing West Ham at Anfield and Slaven Bilić’s side is so far up the shit creek they need a professional sewer diving company to get them out of it. It’s game fourteen and the Hammers have already tried every single defensive lineup possible – but they still haven’t found a decent one. They are sitting just above the relegation zone with the second-worst record of goals conceded in the entire league, having just been casually hit with five strikes from Arsenal. If that’s not a bunch of lambs to the slaughter, I don’t know what is. All Klopp has to do is revert back to Simon Mignolet in goal and put in athletic Ragnar Klavan ahead of Lucas in the heart of the defence. With that – another win streak should not be out of question.
Unstoppable – with another goal and Agüero suspended, Costa is cruising to Golden Boot.
Man City 1 Chelsea 3
If Liverpool have just demonstrated how to lose a won game, Chelsea have shown how to win the lost one. Saturday afternoon at the Etihad was a potential title-decider – and they went into it in a far worse shape than they’ve been for the last two months. Maybe it was Nemanja Matić’s absence; maybe the surprising lack of impact by Pedro down the right wing. But whatever the reason it was – The Blues were on a back foot for the entire course of the match, boasting only 74% pass success and less than 40% possession. They’ve also been making individual mistakes: half an hour into it, an utterly ridiculous backpass by Azpilicueta has gifted the opportunity to Agüero, who’s been taken out by David Luiz. A blatant foul and a red card for denying a clear goalscoring chance – neither been given there.
Yet, it’s still should and would have been different had Agüero, as busy as usual, did put away at least one of multiple chances he’s been rewarded with. On one occasion, he hit it quite powerfully, but right in the middle of the goal. On the other, an easier one, he’s been denied by a spectacular block from Azpilicueta. Even with the goal gaping wide open after a monumental Chelsea’s scramble, he couldn’t direct the shot with enough power to beat the last-ditch sliding block from Cahill. The Argentinian’s frustration culminated by the end of the match, when he disgraced himself by unleashing a two-footed jump on Luiz’s legs – the second such tackle he tried on the Brazilian in his career. What was he thinking? Quite obviously, he wasn’t thinking at all.
Neither was Nicolás Otamendi in the later, critical stage of the match. Just when Chelsea’s counterattacks have started to become dangerous, he tried to make a challenge on Costa while facing towards his own goal and not really seeing where the ball is. He missed his chance completely, got absolutely turned around by the in-form Chelsea striker and all he could do was appealing for a handball, as the ball got buried in the back of Claudio Bravo’s net. Another monstrous bit of skill from the Brazil-born Spaniard and a wonderful, Hollywood pass from a supposedly-finished Cesc Fàbregas. True – but Otamendi should’ve done better there. And same goes for the second goal, when he prematurely charged at Hazard and got completely bamboozled. For a £32 million defender, it was rather embarrassing.
By this point, City were suddenly the team that needed a positive reaction from the bench. Unfortunately for Guardiola, having fielded pretty much all of his attacking players in the starting XI, he could only offer Kelechi Iheanacho as a relief to the unfortunate trio of David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Agüero. The Nigerian, known as one of the most efficient strikers in the league, didn’t change much: both shots he’s attempted during the 12-minute cameo have missed the target. The team was sorely missing Sterling and Nolito, as Pep preferred to have both Bakary Sagna and Pablo Zabaleta on the bench. With that decisions, paired with an eccentric 3-4-2-1 formation, it was clear that MC boss planned to score 2-3 goals early and then use defensive substitutions to protect the lead. Reasonable plan, perhaps; but not a winning one.
Because Chelsea somehow, against all odds, have found their second wind when it all looked grim. They’ve conceded an own goal just before the break; they should’ve conceded a second one shortly after the restart, when De Bruyne blasted it off the bar instead of burying it in an open goal from less than four yards out. They have survived that, and more: they came back with a resounding win thanks to the man who, by all means, looked like a total goner. In Manchester, Cesc Fàbregas has made only his fifth Premier League appearance this season – and he crowned it with an assist and playing a key role in Willian’s goal. That’s Antonio Conte’s magic for you: he starts a player whom he marginalised and the player delivers; he subs on another player he perma-benched – and the player delivers.
It’s Monday, December the 5th. Chelsea are three points clear at the top, on eight straight victories and with West Bromwich, Sunderland, Crystal Palace, Bournemouth and Stoke coming up next. If all those lesser teams cannot put up more resistance than Manchester City did, the title race can be over by the end of the year. No neutral fan wants that to happen: but with Arsenal occupied with the Champions League and FA Cup, with Liverpool randomly losing games, with Manchester City relying too much on Agüero and De Bruyne – who on Earth can stop that from happening?