Long before the festivities began, this match was being played out in a swirl of gunsmoke. It was somehow rather fitting. Liverpool are a team that have always played better with a whiff of cordite in the nostrils
The fireworks had been sounding throughout the second half. Private and local, not the display that would mark the trophy ceremony, rumoured to cost £1million. In the distance, the sound of car horns. This was a city gearing up for another monster celebration and to hell with social distancing.
Merseyside Police had announced a dispersal zone in anticipation of the eruption to come. Probably the quietest locale was inside Anfield, where the cheers that greeted another match won couldn’t possibly compete with the fervour beyond those four walls.
Yet the 90 minutes that preceded the raising of Liverpool’s first Premier League trophy, fully merited the occasion. These are great champions, and this was a great game. The best team won, but Chelsea were worthy opponents, who scored three goals but found Liverpool’s counter-attacking qualities irresistible. Jurgen Klopp’s team took a 3-0 lead and while Chelsea got it back, briefly, to 4-3, the two goals between the teams at the end did not flatter the victors. The league table shows the gulf between Liverpool and the rest, too.
So, while there were the usual distractions – not just fireworks, but a fly-past, and of course a ruddy great trophy, presented by a living legend on a specially erected platform in the middle of the Kop, deserted but bedecked in a hundred colourful flags – this really, this was all about a team. And what a team it has been this season. What verve, what skill, what effort, what relentlessness. They saw what Manchester City did last season, and were not daunted by it. They saw the near impossible standard that had been set and rose to it. This is one of the greatest title-winning teams in English football history. Their performances will stand the test of time.
So the whizz bangs were very pretty, but this was about forwards that could not be contained, full-backs who wouldn’t stop, defenders who didn’t give in and a beating heart bigger than all its competitors. It was squib enough that a group as good as Liverpool 2019-20 should have to receive their prize in front of an empty Anfield, although they did as much as was humanly possible to make it a memorable experience.
To their credit, though, they turned in a performance worthy of the occasion. Five goals against a team that should qualify for the Champions League next season is not to be sniffed at – and the three conceded we can probably excuse in the circumstances. Chelsea had much riding on this, too – and they are no pushovers, as Manchester United discovered on Sunday.
Briefly it seemed as if Chelsea were going to carry on where they left off. They started brightly and had the best of the opening 20 minutes. Mason Mount should have done better with a header set up by Reece James, and the young full-back went it alone soon after with a strong run and a curling shot that flew just wide of goal.
Yet what followed was a demonstration of the might of this Liverpool team. The way they can take a game away from the opposition in a furious burst of energy. Just as Ben Stokes at the crease can transform a game of cricket in a single session, so Liverpool can win a football match in a crazily short space of time. Remember how they put away Manchester City in the first-half of a Champions League tie? How their sheer physicality terrified Barcelona?
Across 20 minutes here, immediately after a passage of play that Chelsea will feel they controlled, Liverpool rushed to a 3-0 lead. That, indeed, is why they are champions. It was the team up the road that once boasted of unleashing the dogs of war – but Liverpool have perfected the tactic. It is as if a switch is flicked and Liverpool’s hounds are released, chasing down the opposition with a terrifying collective yelp.
All it takes is one mistake and, in the 23rd minute, Chelsea made it. A poor clearance by Cesar Azpilicueta put Liverpool on the scent, Willian picking up the loose ball, but pounced on by Naby Keita and Georginio Wijnaldum, working as a team. Wijnaldum flicked a pass to Keita who advanced into the space afforded and unleashed a shot from 30 yards that had Kepa Arrizabalaga grasping at air. He has a poor record as a shot-stopper this season, and this was Liverpool’s first attempt.
Their second found the net, too, less than 10 minutes later. Mateo Kovacic looked to have won a fine tackle on Sadio Mane, but referee Andre Marriner saw it differently. He not only gave a foul but booked Kovacic, a decision that incensed Frank Lampard, who ended up in an angry exchange with touchline officials and Jurgen Klopp’s assistant Pepijn Lijnders. If he was upset before, he would have been absolutely furious moments later, when Trent Alexander-Arnold sized up an opportunity from 35 yards out and planted it into the top right corner, with Arrizabalaga absolutely flat footed. He barely moved a muscle. Still, it was a great goal, and he had an absolutely lovely view of it. One for the album.
Now Chelsea were in disarray, a fact confirmed five minutes later. Andrew Robertson took a corner from the left which Olivier Giroud cleared but only as far as Jorginho a yard in front of him. The ball struck Jorginho’s arm bringing loud Liverpool appeals, but then fell to Wijnaldum who was in the mood for action, not words. He lashed it into Chelsea’s net, the goalkeeper again stranded.
Had Chelsea not struck back before half-time, the game could have properly got away from them. Mount crossed from the left, Marcos Alonso got a flick on and Willian’s touch was deflected high into the air, Giroud first to reach it, prodding the ball past Alisson.
Yet Liverpool were struck soon after half-time, restoring their three goal advantage with a simple counter-attack. Alexander-Arnold crossed and Roberto Firmino was first to the ball, his header powered past Arrizabalaga, who again did not appear to have time to react. Incredibly, it was Firmino’s first Premier League goal at Anfield this season.
This provoked Lampard to make a rash of substitutions, one of which introduced a player whose absence from the start was surprising, to say the least. Klopp is a huge fan of Christian Pulisic and it has been easy to see why this season.
On Wednesday night, too, as he caused carnage almost from the off and dragged Chelsea back into the game. First, a brilliant run on the right took him past three Liverpool players before squaring perfectly for Tammy Abraham – another substitute – to tap in from close range. Then, In the 73rd minute, Pulisic held the ball up brilliantly in the Liverpool penalty area – keeping Alexander-Arnold at bay, too – before turning to lash the ball past Alisson and bring Chelsea within touching distance.
Yet trying to get the equaliser proved their undoing. From a Chelsea free-kick, a Liverpool counter-attack sealed the game. Robertson broke down the left eluding one mistimed attempt to stop him and crossing for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to finish at the far post. It was some game, and some night. Liverpool deserved their trophy, but Chelsea deserve something from this season, too. They put up a very decent supporting show here, even if we all know the main attraction .
The remainder of the match was played out to the backdrop of sporadic fireworks before the celebrations proper began. There was a time when millions went up in smoke regularly at Anfield and Liverpool had nothing to show for it. Not any more. This is a team that delivers bang for every buck. Covid-19 dictated it was far from the perfect finale, but the players delivered, as they have done all season.