Mark Schwarzer stood over the ball, pensive, thoughtfully purveying all the options and possibilities that lay ahead of him, before taking the only option that mattered - smacking the ball as far away from goal as possible. It could have been the second minute, it could have been the 25th minute, it could have been the 60th minute, and it was certainly the 90th minute. Chelsea arrived on Merseyside in an embodiment of the home team's advertising boards, "We Come Not to Play."
Fielding a "weakened" side due to injuries, suspensions, and fixture congestion, Jose Mourinho was at his pragmatic worst on Sunday and Chelsea's ensuing 2-0 victory showed why the Portuguese's negativity earns him 14 million euros per season. The statistical rundown of this game makes for some remarkable reading. Liverpool held possession by a 73-27 split, outshot Chelsea 26 to 11, put eight on target to the Londoners' four, and left with a 2-0 loss that seemed inevitable the moment Demba Ba slipped the opener underneath Simon Mignolet.
From William the Conquer to William Tecumseh Sherman, Mourinho is the latest prophet of the "scorched earth" philosophy and one imagines that he would not have been above dropping napalm on Anfield's beautiful carpet had it been available. It was as infuriating as it was predictable as it was, it must be said, successful. Chelsea was spared the opening blitzkrieg that rendered the submission of City, Everton, and Arsenal precisely because Mourinho forged bunkers so stubborn they would have withstood a SCUD missile.
So, rather than passes into space and tidy finishes, the opening exchanges only held half chances for Philippe Coutinho and Mamadou Sakho, with the game soon settling into the kind of choppy, tempo-free affair that Kopites dreaded most. Chelsea's midfield trio of Nemanja Matic, John Obi Mikel, and the artist formerly known as Frank Lampard denied Liverpool the space between the lines in which Luis Suarez, Coutinho, and Raheem Sterling thrive. The only breathing space for the Reds came through switching play wide to the full backs, with Glen Johnson a consistent outlet on the overlap down the right side - though this still didn't yield a clear chance.
Andre Schurrle underwent multiple amputations and Mourinho joined in on Schwarzer's holding of the ball at restarts, so Martin Atkinson's refusal to hold Chelsea accountable for its blatant time-wasting left most Liverpool fans apoplectic. As the whistles drew louder, Atkinson would offer the same thin grimace and point to his watch, yet his awarding of just three minutes of first half stoppage time seemed insufficient to the home supporters.
They ended up wishing he'd granted none at all after a loose touch from Steven Gerrard was followed by a gut-wrenching slip to the turf that allowed Demba Ba to gallop forward at an unprotected Simon Mignolet. A smooth first touch from the former Newcastle attacker put him into space and his ensuing finish, tucked between the sprawling ‘keeper's elbow and knee, was clinical. Chelsea's lone striker on the day has played only a cameo role this season, yet this goal combined with his Champions League heroics against PSG have earned him warm receptions at Stamford Bridge for years to come.
Liverpool's patient play in the first half gave way to increasingly frustrated and frantic moves forward in the second. With Jordan Henderson watching from the stands and Daniel Sturridge still on the bench, Joe Allen and Lucas played into Mourinho's hands by congesting play in the center of the park. It left Luis Suarez isolated not in the buildup, but in trying to deliver the cutting edge upon arrival to Chelsea's packed penalty area. There wasn't too much space to be had, not that Liverpool's runners would have found it anyway.
Sturridge's arrival just before the hour mark was expected, though the half-fit Englishman didn't offer much of a threat. Brendan Rodgers switched to the diamond around this time, moving Raheem Sterling behind the two strikers and dropping Coutinho deeper into midfield. It wasn't a bad strategy, yet it similarly failed to generate clear chances. Gerrard repeatedly ripped at the ball from outside, but it was Allen who forced Schwarzer into the best save of the day. The Welshman's launch from distance swerved low towards the corner, but he was denied his first Liverpool goal by Schwarzer's fine punch.
The Reds continued to send some speculative efforts at goal, particularly from a series of corners, but the game's second goal was the cruelest kind for the home support. Holding out hope through extra time, it was only in the final seconds that Liverpool was put out of its misery. Having lost possession in midfield, Liverpool watched Fernando Torres and Willian jog through the home side's unprotected half and walk the ball past Mignolet. 2-0 and the title race finally out of Red hands.
While it's easy to harbor resentment and frustration at the manner in which Chelsea won, it's just as important to note that it's the festering of resentment and frustration that allows Chelsea to win in the first place. Mourinho revels in giving you an itch you can't scratch, dangling a carrot just out of grasp with the right hand while the left delivers the sucker punch you'd been warned about, but didn't believe to be your fate as well.
Now, Rodgers will spend tonight exploring the same fate faced by that of Napoleon when he trudged home defeated by the Russian winter. Much like that ambitious tactician, Rodgers will struggle to take solace in his crew's remarkable winning streak after watching his greatest dream slide right through his fingers. The title race isn't over yet of course, but having to rely upon (Champions League) favors from your greatest enemy is not nearly the same as controlling your own fate.