Liverpool: This isn't the end of the title dream
Now is the time to gather in a huddle, to remember what you are about and what might be. Brendan Rodgers did not have to throw a protective arm around his captain, to speak words of justification on behalf of Steven Gerrard, but he did.
He wanted the message out there that despite this defeat, despite the cruel twist that fate had in store for Gerrard, the skipper has nothing to prove in this city and Liverpool had already delivered on their promises this season, met their Champions League target, and might still lift the ultimate prize.
Liverpool ran into a double road block, falling for the old one-two at the end of each half.
“There was only one team trying to win it,” Rodgers said. “I’m incredibly proud of my players. I told them that at half-time. We tried our best to break them down but it wasn’t our day. Congratulations to Chelsea and to Jose [Mourinho]. They got the win today, but that is not how I want to play.”
Providence could not have scripted a more cruel role for Gerrard, a player who has done more than any other in the post-1990 period to return Liverpool to the pinnacle of the game. His fateful slip on the cusp of half-time, allowing Demba Ba to drive a stake through the heart of the Kop, was Greek in dramatic scope.
A fortnight earlier Gerrard stood at the centre of a group huddle urging the team forward after the epic victory over Manchester City. Sunday’s tears formed no part of pre-match considerations in the minds of those migrating towards this great footballing temple. And the support Rodgers offered was not the kind he ever thought would be required.
“Steven is a boy who has picked up this club so many times. He was doing everything he possibly could today and we hoped there would be one or two who would step up to the plate instead of him, but we couldn’t quite do that today.
“There’s certainly no blame because we are in the position we are in now because of him. It could have happened to anyone. This is a guy that is so strong mentally.”
This was the day when it seemed the championship would return to Anfield. The clouds sitting atop the rest of the country parted portentously to let the sun in. The streets around the stadium were full three hours before kick-off, T-shirted supporters from all corners of the world it seemed basking in the spring warmth and a sense of euphoria not felt in these parts for two decades.
Joe Scarborough, of “Morning Joe” fame on America’s CBS network, joined in the pre-match carnival, an emblematic superfan singing the names of his favourites as the Liverpool announcer listed their heroes.
The years of empty yearning made Anfield fit to burst with expectation. That this was their time was writ across the beaming faces of a support already polishing the Premier League pot. Defeat was not an option in this dreamscape but that is what they got, hit over the head with a lead pipe by the most parsimonious of opponents.
Mourinho has made larceny an art wherever he has managed. He lauded his team’s performance as “fantastic”. And while it is difficult to argue with the forensic nature of the performance, it is fair to point out there was little joy in it for the purist. For Rodgers it was a strike against all he holds dear.
“Jose will look at the result and say he won the game. But that is not my philosophy. We were the team with the ball trying to win the game. I like my players to express themselves, to attack the opposition, to play with imagination and pace. We couldn’t break them down on this occasion, but we regroup and prepare for the next game at Crystal Palace,” he said.
“It is amazing to think that we go into the final two games two points clear of a club like Chelsea with all the money they have spent. I’m so proud of every one of my players. We have two games to go and we will try to win them.”
After 11 successive victories the unexpected set-back was always going to happen, and who better than Mourinho to deliver the bad news. The result reinforces the view of the Chelsea manager as the über coach; even shorn of key players and full health, he pulled off a remarkable result when least expected.
There is no right or wrong way to win a match. That much is clear. Mourinho’s way is no more or less worthy than any other, but it hardly makes the heart miss a beat. The great Dutch side of the 1970s, the Mighty Magyars of the 1950s both failed to win the World Cup but both live on in the memories of those that saw them and in the collective psyche of the game.
They left us with tales and recollections of Puskas and Cruyff, of Hidegkuti and Neeskens, of a way of seeing that inspires. What do Mourinho’s teams leave us with? A sense of grudging respect, of admiration for blood spilled and effort spent, but no great desire to buy a ticket.
Rodgers is firmly of the Magyar/Dutch school. Through the range and power of his coaching he has made quick-footed raiders like Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho effective team players. He has remodelled Gerrard into a deep-lying midfielder in middle footballing age and brought Luis Suarez back into the family.
All these are considerable gains in the moulding of a team that has already yielded more fruit than any expected. Manchester City’s victory at Palace made it a deeply painful afternoon but the season is not done yet, and whichever way the dice fall in May, Rodgers has a platform to go again in 2015.