Backs against the wall, a goal down and their position among the elite under threat, finally the real Chelsea burst out of the blocks yesterday.
With David Luiz dictating the tempo to a pulsating contest in a midfield role that must surely be his for the taking on this evidence and with those ahead of him expending perspiration and channelling inspiration in equal measure, this was a Blues performance and result of goliath proportions in the context of their season.
Eden Hazard was inventive, Willian energetic and Luiz irrepressible in an all-action display that saw the home team recover from a position of serious jeopardy to one of immense strength in the league standings with goals from Hazard and Samuel Eto’o helping to overhaul Liverpool within a frantic, topsy-turvy first half.
Jose Mourinho called his players “monsters” following the final whistle for their handling of the festive fixture pile-up but three minutes into this game his side more closely resembled a basket of kittens as a knock-down from a menacing, inswinging Philippe Coutinho set-piece was pounced upon by the panther-like Martin Skrtel to give the guests a shock lead.
Thankfully for their hosts, a suitable riposte was around the corner as the game’s early pace was upheld and a neat passage of one-touch play involving Oscar and his impressive compatriot Willian, whose robustness typified this new-look Chelsea side, led to a loose ball being seized upon first time and swept home in sumptuous fashion by the Belgian Hazard to restore parity.
Man of the match Hazard, now into double figures for the season, had briefly switched back to the left, having come in for some rough treatment down the opposite flank and almost drawn what Mourinho controversially labelled “a double penalty” following contact with Lucas on the left of the Liverpool area 11 minutes in, and immediately found joy with his blistering in-step finish – taken “like David Luiz”, as he joked afterwards – that bent wonderfully into the far corner. Here, there and everywhere throughout, in the style of a certain former Lille team-mate and Stamford Bridge legend, it was the top-scorer’s overall contribution which also indirectly led to the winner.
The threat of his incisive inward running eventually meant Luiz was for once allowed freedom to clip a ball into the path of Cesar Azpilicueta on the right, the versatile full-back having himself changed sides after injury to Branislav Ivanovic and Ashley Cole’s subsequent introduction before the half-hour. The 24-year-old did superbly to hook the ball towards Oscar and the Brazilian took advantage of space afforded him in the Reds’ box at the second attempt to thread a pass between the legs of centre-half Mamadou Sakho and perfectly for Eto’o to slide home his fourth for the club left-footed via the glove of an understandably frustrated Simon Mignolet.
The hosts were made to endure several scares thereafter with a Sakho header coming back off the crossbar, Glen Johnson aiming to emulate past glories with a left-footed daisy-cutter tipped round the post and Luis Suarez – kept quiet for long periods by an accomplished Gary Cahill offering – volleying into a grateful Cech’s arms as the game lurched and swung.
Ultimately, though, Chelsea survived thanks to the cunning and guile, reading and variety of Luiz’s play in midfield, the experience of Cahill and captain John Terry, making his 600th Blues appearance, at the back and the relentless desire of Hazard, Willian, Oscar and Eto’o up front.
Luiz’s reward will apparently be a planned New Year’s trip to Portugal, according to a hugely jovial Jose post-match, as he sits out the Southampton game through suspension for his fifth booking of the campaign and his manager quipped he may select reserve goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer in his place, so short is he on numbers in that domain after Frank Lampard departed with a muscle complaint at the break.
Eto’o will count himself even more fortunate after his foul on Jordan Henderson led to the opening goal and no more, as his was a challenge that sits worse with each viewing. Then there was the utterly needless nudging of Suarez that could so easily have undone all his team’s hard work by gifting a penalty that was somehow not awarded by a clearly bewildered Howard Webb in front of a sweating Shed End.
Despite these mishaps, Eto’o left the field to a hero’s ovation on 87 minutes, rendering Fernando Torres’ input severely limited against his ex-employers. And yet the Spaniard so nearly applied the cherry to the – predictably enough for Torres – already half-eaten Christmas cake when he attacked from the touchline, beating two defenders, but tamely rolled the ball into Mignolet’s midsection, as the clock ticked down to another satisfied round of Blue is the Colour and a thoroughly bearable journey home on trusty London transport.