Just as important as the contrast in self-image, however, is that their meetings have — at least since 2003, the year the rivalry erupted — tended to be so high-stakes.
They have not always been pretty. Jorge Valdano, at the time a director at Real Madrid, once claimed that Chelsea and Liverpool’s encounters summed up all that was wrong with soccer. But they have rarely been less than significant. With remarkable frequency, these games have defined one or the other team’s season; more than once, they have been decisive for the Premier League as a whole.
None, perhaps, have been quite so significant as Chelsea’s victory in 2003 that took it to the Champions League at Liverpool’s expense. That match was a key moment in persuading Abramovich to save the club from financial despair. And none have been quite so raucous as Liverpool’s revenge in 2005, when it knocked Chelsea out of the Champions League at the semifinal stage on the way to its triumph in the final in Istanbul.
But those games were just the start. There have been finals in both the F.A. Cup and the League Cup, won by Chelsea. It was Liverpool that ended Chelsea’s 86-match home unbeaten streak in 2008, and Liverpool’s win at Stamford Bridge last season kick-started the run that eventually cost Coach José Mourinho his job.
Twice, the league title itself has been snatched or surrendered: in 2010, when Chelsea won by 2-0 at Anfield to seal a championship for Carlo Ancelotti, and in 2014, when Chelsea effectively crushed Liverpool’s hopes of a first title since 1990 with the same score.
Tuesday’s edition seemed ready to attain a similar status. It had the air of a turning point: A Chelsea win would have moved Manager Antonio Conte and his players within realistic touching distance of the Premier League title; a Liverpool victory might have proved the point at which Chelsea’s advantage at the summit of the league standings started to erode.
In the event, neither happened; there was no knockout blow, only minor damage in a 1-1 draw. Chelsea’s wounds will, in all probability, heal a little sooner. Conte’s team could have won had Diego Costa converted a late, disputed penalty kick, but Chelsea still managed to extend its Premier League lead. With Arsenal having lost at home to Watford and Tottenham having tied lowly Sunderland on the road, Chelsea sits 9 points ahead of second place.
A share of the spoils was less palatable to Liverpool.
Manager Jürgen Klopp was in an ebullient mood afterward, insisting that if most fans had been offered in the summer “a time machine, to take us to this point in the season, in this position, with 15 games to go and a full squad,” they would have gladly accepted it.
They would, of course: Liverpool was not expected to mount a title challenge this year. The received wisdom, at the start of the season, was that Klopp’s target in his first full year in England would be to restore Liverpool to the Champions League, once a frequent destination for Liverpool but, since 2009, a most elusive goal. This draw may not have advanced the club’s hope of winning the league, but it has not killed it off entirely, either. There remains a distant glimmer of hope. That represents progress; it just does not feel like that.
To some extent, Klopp has only himself to blame. Liverpool is a club predisposed to inflated hope, and a searing start to the season — victories over Arsenal and Chelsea on the road — served as license to dream. A free-flowing attack, scorers of more Premier League goals than any other, masked deficiencies on defense and in goal. Klopp’s bullish charisma seemed to have rubbed off on his players, and Liverpool’s absence from other European competitions seemed to negate fears over the holes in the squad.
And then, over a bitter January, it all fell apart. Injury, bureaucracy and international commitments deprived Klopp of several key players. Elimination from the two domestic tournaments in the space of a week highlighted just how thin his resources, beyond his top 14 or 15 players, really are. He has been accused of lacking a Plan B, an alternative way of playing to break down stubborn defenses — a somewhat woolly concept in English soccer still regarded as the hallmark of a great coach.
Klopp has sensed that; he made a point Monday night of telling Liverpool — and he gave the impression of speaking about the fans as much as the players — not to lose its nerve. Everything is still in play, he said; the season is far from over.
He is right. Liverpool may not be able to win the league, not from here, not with Chelsea running out of challenging opponents and far from running out of steam, but then that was only ever a hope. Liverpool and Klopp remain on track — more or less — for what they were supposed to achieve this season. That it feels like a disappointment is not a sign that they have lost their way. It indicates, instead, that they have simply traveled faster, and further, than anyone expected.