The onset of winter is freezing Chelsea's title pursuit yet again. Points were wastefully shed to Liverpool here, the celebratory mood that had briefly flared when John Terry marked his return from domestic suspension with a first goal of the season doused long before the end. The captain now faces a spell in rehabilitation after sustaining a knee injury. Quite what state this team's Premier League challenge will be in when he returns remains to be seen.
The last fortnight has damaged Roberto Di Matteo, the momentum generated over the campaign's early weeks checked by defensive fragilities which have restricted his team to two points from three league games. Chelsea are not quite in the downturn that set in around this time last year under André Villas-Boas. Neither are they yet in the three-month slump that Carlo Ancelotti infamously christened a "bad moment" but failed to allay in 11 matches the previous season, or the stutter that became a stumble under Luiz Felipe Scolari in late 2008. But scintillating form has quickly given way to stodgy results, and the four-point advantage they enjoyed at the top a fortnight ago has swiftly been surrendered.
Theirs has admittedly been a daunting recent schedule, a period that coincided with Terry's four-match suspension, but they will hardly relish Saturday's trip to The Hawthorns where West Bromwich Albion have proved so imposing. It is the vulnerability, combined with over-complication among their host of attack-minded players, that has undermined them most critically. If chances are passed up, as they were, anxiety tends to set in with memories of the side's last clean sheet, against Nordsjaelland in early October, fading fast. Liverpool mustered only two shots on target and yet improved second-half urgency, provoked by a tactical tweak but reliant upon Chelsea's shortcomings, ensured they departed with a point.
It was picked up 17 minutes from time, the substitute Suso's corner flicked on by Jamie Carragher – on his first Premier League start of term – at the near-post for Luis Suárez, having subtly eased himself clear of Ramires, to nod into the gaping net. The visitors are unbeaten in six but continue to rely on their Uruguayan, with this his eighth league goal in 973 minutes this season when the same goal tally had taken him 2,192 last year. Branislav Ivanovic had initially shackled him well but Suárez's slippery threat endured. "He's an amazing player, and key to us," said José Enrique, and that felt like an understatement. The wing-back might even have won it in stoppage time at the end only for Petr Cech to turn a skimmed shot round his near-post as anxiety gripped the locals.
Chelsea have greater depth in their attacking quality but, even with Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard in typically flamboyant mood, they had critically been incapable of eking out the breathing space required. They, too, had registered from a corner in front of the Shed end, Mata's delivery met emphatically by Terry whose thumped finish might have opened the floodgates. Liverpool were dithering at the time, their own possession rather aimless and carelessness creeping into the defending. Daniel Agger had been assigned Terry at the set-play but started on the wrong side and ended up blocked by a jumble of Glen Johnson and Ivanovic. By the time Terry was charging off to the corner flag in celebration, the Dane's sense of guilt had left him flushed.
Chelsea's centre-halves have actually contributed as many Premier League goals this term – six – as their extravagant attacking trio of Hazard, Mata and Oscar, and those three could not ally slick approach-play with accurate finishing, the inter-changes becoming more elaborate and prone to run aground with each passing miss. Hazard darted through the middle, leaving Joe Allen floored not for the first time, but Brad Jones saved smartly from Fernando Torres's first-time shot. When three Liverpool defenders collided at the end of the first period, Mata skipped into space on the edge of the box only to sky his attempt. Jones denied Torres from close range again just before the hour-mark, and the visitors must have sensed that they might escape without further damage.
They imposed themselves more impressively thereafter, grinding a route back into the contest with the hosts having lost Terry en route.
Di Matteo's side had shipped 10 goals in the four matches the 31-year-old had sat out for his ban, and may now have to learn to live without him again as they await the results of Monday's MRI scan. Ashley Cole's hamstring may have recovered by the time they visit The Hawthorns, and David Luiz should no longer be troubled by the tonsillitis that ruled him out here.
Yet Terry's absence still serves to unsettle, and this team feels in desperate need of some old-fashioned defensive solidity. First has become third in the space of a fortnight. This trend has been endured before.
Man of the match Brad Jones (Liverpool)