Liverpool surrendered a two-goal lead in a frantic game at Stamford Bridge with Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea, as a 2-2 draw severely dinted both side's title chances.
Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah provided stand-in manager Pep Lijnders with the dream start to life as Liverpool’s temporary number one - as he replaced the Covid-stricken Jurgen Klopp - with goals inside the first half an hour.
However, the Blues struck back with two goals of their own in the final four minutes of the first half - including a wonder strike from Mateo Kovacic - as they capitalised on some poor Liverpool defending. Leaving both sides with the almighty task of catching Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City who boast a ten-point lead at the top of the table.
The story of the match
The home side saw their preparation for this fixture strongly disrupted due to an interview Romelu Lukaku - the club's record signing - conducted with Sky Sports Italia, where he criticised manager Tuchel and expressed his regret of leaving Inter Milan. As a result, the German omitted Chelsea's star striker from their squad for arguably their biggest game of the season to date.
In total, he made five changes to the side that could only muster a draw against Brighton earlier the week as Reece James, Jorginho, Callum Hudson-Odi and Andreas Christensen joined Lukaku in making way for Trevoh Chalobah, Kai Havertz, Marcus Alonso, Thiago Silva and N’Golo Kante.
Klopp - forced to operate from home after testing positive for Covid-19 - made three changes to his side that were defeated on Tuesday evening by Leicester City. Alisson and Joel Matip were forced to undertake a period of self-isolation after also testing positive for the virus earlier this week - along with Roberto Firmino.
Those absences handed Ibrahima Konate his first start since last month's 2-2 draw against Tottenham Hotspur and Caoimhin Kelleher his second Premier League start this term. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain dropped to the bench as the Reds opted for the experience of James Milner alongside Fabinho and Jordan Henderson in midfield.
It was a lively start to proceedings in west London as Mane was booked after less than ten seconds on the clock for clattering into Cesar Azpilicueta. Anthony Taylor’s early booking set the tone for a cagey opening 45 minutes.
Chelsea started the game as the more aggressive of the two sides with Kante and Kovacic asserting early dominance against Fabinho, Milner and Henderson - who struggled to retain possession for the away side.
Although - despite their early dominance - there were warning signs for Chelsea as they allowed Salah to break through and fire an early effort straight at Eduard Mendy.
Liverpool didn’t bow to the home side’s early grip on the game as they took the lead with just nine minutes gone when Mane was on-hand to capitalise on Chalobah’s defensive frailties. The young defender got his attempted clearance all wrong which left the Senegalese forward with the simple task of firing into an empty goal after he had calmly rounded Mendy.
In doing so, Mane added his name to English football’s history books as he became the first player since 1947 to score in consecutive visits to Stamford Bridge.
The Blues ramped up the pressure as they continued their domination with the ball. However, they were unable to cut through Virgil van Dijk and co, with Alonso limited to a speculative volley that sailed harmlessly over the crossbar.
The Reds doubled their advantage after 26 minutes when Salah latched onto Trent Alexander-Arnold's wonderful through-ball before coolly dancing past Alonso and squeezing it in at the near-post, to claim his 16th league goal of an outstanding league campaign so far.
It was third time lucky for the Reds’ No.11, as he had already been denied a handful of times previously by the Chelsea shot-stopper.
After a weekend of VAR controversy, Mason Mount added his name to the list midway through the first half as he escaped action for a high elbow on Kostas Tsimikas to the frustration of the away dugout.
Lijnders’ side had a plethora of chances to extend their lead and put the game out of reach for the home side as Jota fired a low-driven ball into the box, only for there to be none of his teammates around to tap home.
The signs of the Blues putting together a fightback were present when the away side failed to put the game out of sight, leaving the door slightly ajar for Tuchel's side with every squandered chance.
In the absence of Lukau, it was always going to take something special for Chelsea to find goals on the day. And that’s exactly what Kovacic produced when he halved the deficit with a superb volley from the edge of the box after Kelleher had punched away the initial cross. Which handed Chelsea a much-needed lifeline.
Stamford Bridge erupted at the sound of the Croatian’s effort nestling into the top corner, after skimming the post, to mark the beginning of a frantic four minutes.
No sooner had Tuchel’s men got themselves back in the game, had they rallied again and struck level.
In first-half stoppage time, Pulisic timed his run to perfection as he raced beyond the Reds’ defence to lift the ball over the onrushing Kelleher.
At this moment in time, there only looked like being one winner as Lijnders' side were in desperate need of Taylor's half-time whistle. As they showed signs that they were wilting, and fast.
There were no changes for either side at the break, however, but it appeared that Lijnders' had tasked both Salah and Mane with operating more in-field in his bid to catch the Blues off-guard.
And the tactical tweak nearly paid dividends, when Mane was gifted a chance to restore the lead for his side but he was unable to get enough bend on his effort to beat Mendy from inside the box. Chelsea appeared to be sluggish from their extraordinary efforts just before the interval, as they were penned inside their own half with minimal options of an out-ball for the immediate periods of play after the restart.
Salah thought he had grabbed his second of the game after an audacious effort from just inside the Chelsea half had caught everyone unaware, apart from the magnificent Mendy. Who managed to tip it behind for a corner and continue his fine afternoon between the sticks.
With just under half an hour remaining the Chelsea onslaught began, but Kelleher was on hand to spare Liverpool’s blushes when he denied Pulisic his second of the game from close range.
Mount had a handful of attempts at giving the Blues the lead for the first time on the night, with the best coming after his initial free-kick attempt was blocked and he caught the rebound fiercely - but his effort wasn’t low enough to sneak past Liverpool’s No.62.
With both sides trailing Manchester City by at least a ten-point margin it was win or bust, a stance that was obvious in both managers’ substitutions; with the visitors opting for Naby Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain from the bench while Tuchel introduced Callum Hudson-Odi.
A flurry of corners was as close as either side came to a winner in the final stages. The full-time whistle was met with an air of frustration by both sets of supporters who know it will be an almighty ask to catch the blue half of Manchester now.
Chelsea: Mendy; Chalobah, Thiago Silva, Rudiger; Azpilicueta, Kante, Kovacic, Alonso; Mount, Havertz, Pulisic
Liverpool: Kelleher, Alexander-Arnold, Konate, Van Dijk, Tsimikas; Henderson, Fabinho, Milner; Salah, Jota, Mane