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Liverpool v Chelsea

Superstar Hazard takes centre stage as Liverpool's supporting cast fail Anfield audition

1:13 AM GMT+4 27/09/2018
Eden Hazard Chelsea
The Belgian's brilliant strike earned Chelsea a dramatic 2-1 victory at Anfield, ending the hosts' 100 per cent start to the new season in the process

Sometimes you just have to applaud.

Liverpool’s perfect start is over, their lofty ambitions of a season challenging on four fronts reduced in an instant.

Eden Hazard is the man to blame.

The Belgian’s bewildering strike settled this Carabao Cup tie in Chelsea’s favour, on a night when Jurgen Klopp’s side let a second-half lead slip, falling victim to a piece of questionable refereeing and a moment of sheer individual genius. The most successful club in League Cup history will not be adding to its tally this season.

Jimmy Greaves was right: it can be "a funny old game" sometimes.

A contest which had numbed the senses for 45 minutes, stilted and disjointed, delivered a rousing second-half. Liverpool, who led through Daniel Sturridge’s acrobatic strike, were left to rue their inability to press home that advantage.

Emerson Palmieri poached an equaliser before Hazard, summoned from the bench, delivered the crowning glory for Maurizio Sarri’s side.

It was some goal. Drifting across the field in that scurrying, yet perfectly-balanced, manner, he nutmegged Roberto Firmino, swapped passes with Cesar Azpilicueta before heading for goal from the right flank.

Skipping away from Naby Keita, he nipped inside Alberto Moreno into the penalty area before slipping the ball between the Spaniard’s legs. His finish was smashed unerringly across Simon Mignolet into the far corner. 

A goal fit to win any game, for sure, and a blow struck by the Londoners ahead of Saturday’s Premier League meeting at Stamford Bridge.

Those looking for serious pointers for that game, though, will have left disappointed.

Klopp had insisted on Tuesday that he would treat this game with respect, but his starting line-up showed eight changes from the weekend win over Southampton. Sarri, his opposite number, chose the same approach for Chelsea. 

Having told his pre-match press conference that each and every one of his players was training well, pushing for a place, the question for Liverpool here was how many of Klopp’s fringe men would step up to the plate here? The answer, in truth, was not enough.

Fabinho, the summer signing from Monaco, was given a first Reds start in midfield. Klopp had suggested that the Brazilian could need as much as “half a year” to look “natural” in this team, and it was easy to see what he meant here.

The £40million man started slowly, looking laboured in possession and finding himself bypassed too easily by Chelsea’s talented trio of Cesc Fabregas, Mateo Kovacic and Ross Barkley.

The ease with which Barkley found space in front of Liverpool’s back four was alarming to say the least, as was the sight of Fabinho, dallying in possession, caught on the ball by his countryman Willian 30 yards from his own goal. He'll have to learn fast in this league, where time is of the essence.

In fairness to the 24-year-old, he improved as the game went on and he was not alone in looking ponderous during the opening period. Liverpool’s full-backs, Moreno and Nathaniel Clyne, did little to impress, while Dejan Lovren showed understandable rustiness on his first competitive appearance since the World Cup final in July. Even the ever-reliable James Milner looked below his best. "It can happen," said Klopp. "This team plays a very specific style of football."

Others fared better, Xherdan Shaqiri was bright once more, probably Liverpool's best player overall, while there was enough in Naby Keita's display to suggest he is settling into life in this team.

Chelsea had 62 per cent of the ball in the first half without scoring, Alvaro Morata squandering their best chances, but they should have been behind a minute into the second. Quite how Sturridge, latching onto a loose backpass from Andreas Christensen, failed to finish having rounded Willy Caballero is anyone’s guess. The Kop has seen some misses in its time, but this was right up there. Klopp's face on the sideline spoke for everyone. 

At least Sturridge could redeem himself a dozen minutes later, finishing expertly after Caballero had denied Keita. It was the striker’s 11th goal in his last 11 League Cup appearances. He would later hit the bar with a superb 25-yard effort.

At that point it looked like Liverpool, who raised their game and their tempo significantly after the interval, would make it eight wins from eight, but a questionable free-kick award allowed Emerson to nab Chelsea a leveller – Klopp felt Barkley was offside from the initial header, though VAR decided otherwise – and when Hazard set off on one of THOSE runs four minutes from time the jig was up. "When he is on a run, he is on a run," Klopp grimaced.

And so Liverpool’s four-front assault is now three, their flawless record gone.

Saturday will be different, of course. Different stadium, different stakes, different line-ups. Different outcome; Liverpool will hope.

They will have their own big-hitters back for that one – Sadio Mane started here, but Firmino and Mo Salah were used only from the bench here, while Virgil van Dijk, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson and Alisson Becker were not in the squad – but they will be wary of Chelsea’s star man.

On a night of frustration at Anfield, it was Chelsea superstar Hazard who shone brightest.