It is often said that Ross Barkley keeps the ball too long. In the 64th minute at Stamford Bridge last night, he kept it just long enough to score the goal that confirmed there would be no domestic double for Liverpool this season.
Chelsea’s second goal gave Frank Lampard’s team the cushion they desired and deserved, smoothing a path into the quarter-finals.
It was a goal that merited the exit of the champions elect, too, a wonderful sprint from inside his own half, finished with a shot that gave Adrian little chance. Olivier Giroud started it, winning a counter-attacking header against Curtis Jones – but Barkley’s run summed up Chelsea’s energy and ambition. He collected the ball south of the centre circle in his own half and powered through, Virgil Van Dijk and Joe Gomez backing off, and to significant cost.
Pedro presented a handy passing option at the end but Barkley chose to ignore him and went for goal instead. It beat Adrian to his right – and Chelsea were all but through.
By the end, Jurgen Klopp had introduced Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino from the bench, but to no avail. The match belonged to Chelsea, who hit the bar twice in the second-half, through a Mason Mount free-kick and a good shot from Giroud.
Make no mistake, Liverpool were not happy to surrender this, either. It was not a case of Klopp giving up on the FA Cup. Three of the first choice back four were present, plus Fabinho in midfield and Mane upfront. Given the points gap between these teams he would have hoped to have had enough. No manager sets out to lose.
Normal service should be resumed on Saturday at home to Bournemouth and everyone knows where Liverpool’s priorities lie this season. Yet winning is a habit and it is one Liverpool have lost of late. This was their third defeat in five games. For Chelsea, after recent inconsistencies, it was just the tonic they needed.
What a tremendous first-half this was, and all the better for the smattering of youth in the ranks, and the odd senior player with a point to prove, like Chelsea keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga, who stopped as many shots in a matter of seconds as he had in the games before he was dropped.
Star of the show early on, though, was Billy Gilmour, a Scotland under-21 international deployed in the position normally occupied by Jorginho except with greater discipline, speed and vigour.
The pivot does not have to be as ponderous as sometimes Chelsea make it, as Gilmour proved. Unafraid to collect the ball from the back, unafraid to pick a pass and try it all with pace, he set Chelsea’s tempo in a way Jorginho often does, to their detriment. It was a huge leap of faith for Frank Lampard to deploy him in such a vital role, but Gilmour did not let him down. Fabinho, in the same position for Liverpool, came up short by comparison
Certainly, he was at fault for the first goal, scored after 13 minutes and richly deserved. Joe Gomez played a pass to Fabinho. It wasn’t the best, but it was better than he made it appear. Fabinho always looked in trouble bringing it under control and he moved it on with panicked haste, straight to the feet of Willian.
The Brazilian shot, from outside the area his speciality, and while the ball kept low and moved in the air, stand-in goalkeeper Adrian made a terrible hash of it. The ball squirmed off his knees and into the corner of the net. The pity was that less than a minute earlier he had a made a quite brilliant save to keep Liverpool level.
On this occasion it was Pedro whose shot was deflected across goal, to the feet of Willian. He hit one with such venom it seemed capable of leaving a smoking hole in anything that blocked its path. Instead, Adrian matched it with a stunning stop. Will anyone remember that, though? Probably not – they’ll think about the error instead, the third mistake to cost a goal this season, more than any other Liverpool player.
Yet sometimes it is simply a matter of luck. Antonio Rudiger made a complete howler after just three minutes but, fortunately for him, nothing came of it. Attempting a long ball out of defence, he struck it squarely at a red shirt, the rebound favouring Sadio Mane whose shot was saved by Arrizabalaga at the second attempt.
That was nothing compared to his heroics in the 20th minute, mind, when a goalmouth scramble erupted so chaotic it was almost a throwback to those 1970s FA Cup ties, played on bogs of ground between teams whose shirt numbers had been obscured by mud with no replacement available. Divock Origi, Mane and Adam Lallana all had a crack, Arrizabalaga made block after block after block.
He celebrated like the Cup had been won, and maybe Lampard allowed himself a satisfied inner smile. That was the goalkeepetr Chelsea had hoped to have signed for the money, the one who had appeared to desperately out of sorts before being replaced by Willy Caballero. If Lampard has the old Arrizabalaga back, his selection policy will have worked.
He will have been more frustrated by another half of missed opportunities from Chelsea, who could have added at least one more. An Olivier Giroud header from Willian’s corner after seven minutes should have opened the scoring, had Rudiger been more alert at the far post, while just four minutes later Adrian pulled off a fabulous save from a long range effort by Ross Barkley.
Then, in the 17th minute, a Marcos Alonso free-kick from outside the area on the right travelled just over the bar. Pedro was getting decent space on the left flank, too, but failing to capitalise on it. One move saw his pocket picked by young full-back Neco Williams, who then hared out to the touchline to keep it in, while Pedro gave up and looked on – only realising what would happen when the counter-attack was underway. Lampard looked less than impressed.
Williams tried to get forward as Trent Alexander-Arnold does, but without equivalent impact. In the 30th minute, after a Mane shot was saved the ball fell to him in a tantalising position, but he sliced it wide.