Only one team in Chelsea vs Liverpool clash looked like genuine early top four contenders

Chelsea impressed and Liverpool struggled at Stamford Bridge - but how much can we read into Sunday’s 1-1 draw?
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Mauricio Pochettino’s brief is short but hardly straightforward – completely change the fortunes of a club who spent more money than any other in history in a single season only to slide alarmingly down the table. Oh, and reinvigorate a dressing room from which all traces of morale had been surgically extracted. And clear out half of the playing staff at the same time. And qualify for the Champions League, if possible.

Nobody would have been unduly shocked had they fallen hard at the first hurdle, given that it was a high one – a first playing of the famed Moisés Caicedo Derby on the opening day. And falling was exactly what Chelsea seemed to be doing when Mohamed Salah raced down an otherwise entirely empty channel to slot home and make it 2-0 to the visitors. Liverpool, with a playing squad seemingly built entirely from attacking midfielders, were running rings around a youthful, befuddled home team and the mood music was starting to sound like the slow-building string theme from Jaws.

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But then the damnedest thing happened – VAR found that a wispy strand of Salah’s hair had strayed ahead of the last man, Chelsea swiftly levelled through debutant Axel Disasi, had a second strike of their own chalked off, and the backing band stowed the ominous cellos in favour of some upbeat jazz. For the rest of game, Chelsea played rather beautifully.

Ben Chilwell was rampant down Liverpool’s vulnerable right flank. Nicolas Jackson, although he missed a couple of very presentable opportunities, looked sharp and dangerous as he darted between the lines, finding far more space around Virgil van Dijk than most forwards manage. Enzo Fernández ran the show and set the tempo, while Conor Gallagher – who was largely anonymous in the first half-hour – was suddenly everywhere, snapping at ankles like a starving Yorkshire terrier.

Then there was Levi Colwill, who took an early pasting from a seemingly rampant Salah, but pulled the shutters down and frustrated the Egyptian to the extent that he had to be subbed off to a series of gleeful jeers as he stroppily peeled off his handwraps piece by piece – a very strong early contender for comedy moment of the season. If Chelsea were swinging their way through the second half, Liverpool were sulkily listening to Radiohead in their bedroom.

A point was all that the home side could come away with, but it’s a point edged with positivity – Chelsea had been the better side, controlled possession, and looked far more organised than their high-level opponents. Not that there aren’t still some worries – Raheem Sterling didn’t sparkle as many had hoped he would after a disappointing first season down south, while Mykhaylo Mudryk, who needs a personal reset as much as the team at large does, didn’t really get into the game after coming off the bench. A bench, come to that, which looked astonishingly lightweight given that Chelsea have spent around £700m on incoming transfers since Clearlake Capital took control just over a year ago.

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Another £115m will soon be spent on Caicedo, although they will surely need more than the combative Ecuadorian to maintain momentum, especially given the unexpected absence of Kepa Arrizabalaga, suddenly in demand and off to pastures new. This was one bridge sauntered across – but there are many more ahead, some of them look pretty rickety, and the final fortnight of the transfer window will be telling.

What, though, about the visitors? This was the first airing for their own revised and theoretically rejuvenated midfield, although the absence of anything resembling a holding midfielder did seem to suggest a process that was far from complete – and indeed their play at the heart of the park was badly imbalanced, wayward and often incoherent as Cody Gakpo, Alexis Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboszlai ran more rings around each other than the opposition, all as they quietly competed for the number ten role against each other in real time. Mac Allister drew the short straw, playing the deepest role of the three and making a few decent tackles and timely interventions but scarcely looking like the most commanding presence we’ve seen at the heart of the Liverpool midfield. Prime Fabinho he is not.

But then, the fault hardly lies with the Argentinian – or the Dutchman, the Hungarian, or even the German in charge on the day. Liverpool’s transfer department dipped out of an attempt to sign Jude Bellingham because he would cost too much, then bid even more for Caicedo, only to be promptly and publicly spurned. Attempts to sign Roméo Lavia have been less than smooth, although a breakthrough does seem to have been made today. A defensive midfielder is a dire necessity, but the scraping has already started to reach the bottom half of the barrel.

And there was evidence that the midfield may not be the only area of the field that needs a refresh. The defence struggled to deal with Chelsea’s movement, especially the late runs of Jackson and full-backs Chilwell and Reece James, and Van Dijk – once the man who nearly went an entire season without being dribbled past – only managed one tackle in the entire match as he chased shadows around the box. It used to be that any defender trying to get a shot in would have the Dutchman all over them like a rash. Now they get a fairly easy half-yard, and the towering central defender, who for so long plastered over all of Liverpool’s defensive cracks with ease, is no longer the one-man portcullis that he used to be. At 32, a changing of the defensive guard may be required before long.

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But let’s be fair, until both side’s transfer teams get through their extremely lengthy to-do lists it’s really too early to judge either team’s prospects with clarity. Liverpool were pretty poor, but managed to tough it out for a draw while Chelsea, for all their snap and crackle, still lacked a little pop in front of goal. Both teams could look completely different once their various positional needs are covered, and no doubt both teams will do a bit more business before September 1st. But this weekend it was Chelsea who looked like a top four contender, and Liverpool who have some serious thinking to do.

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