Steven Gerrard's first-half mistake was the cruellest blow of all while José Mourinho's team selection did not spoil the contest
Luis Suárez's starring role in Liverpool's unexpected title challenge is not in question, nor the phenomenal impact of Daniel Sturridge, but no player has exerted a greater influence over the 11-match winning run that had brought the trophy tantalisingly in reach than Steven Gerrard. The captain's conversion into a holding midfielder of rare intuition and intelligence, plus some nerveless penalty-taking, has driven Liverpool towards what would be the first league championship of his career. How cruel then, that his one mistake in that period not only ended Liverpool's streak but handed Manchester City a title lifeline. Gerrard was visibly distraught after the poor first touch and slip that allowed Demba Ba through to score the opening goal. Chelsea fans, remembering the midfielder's own goal in the 2005 League Cup Final plus a back pass that enabled Didier Drogba to convert at Anfield en route to winning the 2010 title, taunted Mourinho's former transfer target with "He's done it again". The Kop responded with a fulsome tribute of its own but the blow will be lasting for Gerrard should it prove decisive.
With the exception of the impressive Tomas Kalas, the 20-year-old Premier League debutant who recently likened his purpose at Chelsea to a training ground cone, there could be no complaints from Manchester City over José Mourinho's team selection at Anfield. The Chelsea manager suggested he had no alternative but to field a weakened side against Liverpool with the second leg of the Champions League semi-final against Atlético Madrid to come on Wednesday but, when the team sheet landed, it was full of experience, nous and strength. Another successful mind game? That would be pushing it, as Liverpool's game-plan is designed around their own strengths rather than an opponent's, and the home side again dominated possession. What the selection removed at a stroke, however, was any suspicion Mourinho has given up on the Premier League title. His players responded superbly to their manager's latest tactical plan and hauled themselves back into the championship race as a result.
Did sour the spectacle. Unfortunately for the purist, or anyone who wants entertainment from one of the wealthiest clubs and finest managers in the game, it succeeded from a Chelsea perspective. The visitors were under instruction to waste time from the first whistle and took an age over goal-kicks, free-kicks and throw-ins. Jon Flanagan and Steven Gerrard shoved José Mourinho to retrieve a ball he was holding longer than necessary, Philippe Coutinho threw a ball to Ashley Cole and then had to scamper after it when the left-back let it sail past, while it took 40 minutes for the referee, Martin Atkinson, to warn Mark Schwarzer for delaying every clearance. But it worked. Liverpool's customary early onslaught was stifled, their players visibly irritated and, with painful irony for the Anfield crowd, Ba's goal arrived in time added on for Chelsea's delaying tactics.
Brendan Rodgers and his players cannot be faulted for their attitude, application or desire at Anfield; they gave it everything and Chelsea deserve credit for the defensive performance – though not the spoiling tactics – that condemned Liverpool to a first home defeat since 21 September. Their first-half display, like every other outing during this remarkable push for a first league title since 1990, belied any suggestions that the pressure of uncharted territory would get to Liverpool. Increasingly, however, the sureness of touch and accurate passing that had underpinned the winning run deserted the home side. Gerrard's mistake was the defining moment but it was careless distribution from the Liverpool captain, Philippe Coutinho, the substitute Iago Aspas and others that illustrated how the proximity of a Premier League trophy, plus the blue wall of Chelsea, can affect teams with the strongest momentum and self-belief.
Brendan Rodgers wanted Willian last summer but instead, with Tottenham and then Chelsea willing to pay more, and the absence of Champions League football again proving influential, the Brazilian opted for London and Liverpool's attacking options were increased by Aspas. While the struggling Spaniard attracted Anfield's derision for a woeful late corner, Willian waltzed through to tap in from Fernando Torres's pass. The former Liverpool favourite was barracked throughout his brief cameo back at Anfield but always appeared destined to have one final say in the title race. Chelsea's options from the bench had a telling impact but Liverpool's squad, with Daniel Sturridge unable to make an impression on his return from injury, was stretched too far.