Chelsea should’ve scored twice at Anfield on Sunday.
Following Mohamed Salah’s thunderbolt, a devastating Emerson through-ball had Eden Hazard one-on-one with the keeper, only for the ball to roll flush into the left goal post.
Less than two minutes later, a Willian cross from the far side again found Hazard in space a couple of yards out, only for the ball to cannon off the Belgian’s shin straight at a grateful Allison.
At the 61-minute mark, the score could easily have read Liverpool 2, Chelsea 2.
But there’s no point pondering ‘shoulda, coulda, woulda’, because Liverpool held on and ramped up the pressure on Manchester City, while Chelsea remain in the battle for Champions League qualification.
On the surface, things aren’t looking too rosy at Stamford Bridge.
Bundled out of the FA Cup, locked in a tight battle for the top four, rumours of Real Madrid circling around their star player Hazard, and an imminent transfer ban.
Chelsea intend to appeal the transfer ban imposed by FIFA for breaching regulations in the signing of minors.
Following a failed first appeal, a second was heard last Thursday, with a third and final appeal available at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
However, Chelsea fans needn’t be worried. Because this sanction could be exactly what this club needs.
The Blues’ expendable line of former managers and lucrative transfer market ventures have been well documented, underlining a rampant strain of short-termism which has infected the club’s hierarchy.
The tumultuous departures of Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte – coupled with a disastrous transfer market strategy and a baffling inability to develop youth – has been at the ire of the West London faithful for much of the last decade.
(Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images)
The residue of failed experiments such as Alvaro Morata and Tiemoue Bakayoko still linger, while former players like Kevin De Bruyne and Mo Salah have become the faces of their Premier League rivals.
However, at the other end, Chelsea’s development side are carving up the FA Youth Cup, currently on a winning streak of five consecutive championships having won an astonishing seven of the last nine editions of the tournament.
The Blues have an army of loan players such as Kurt Zouma, Charly Musonda, Michy Batshuayi, Tammy Abraham and Derby County stalwarts Fikayo Tomori and Mason Mount.
It’s an intimidating record and awe-inspiring list. But given Chelsea’s record of mismanagement it might amount to nothing.
Chelsea fans received an early Easter gift in the first week of April when Chelsea hosted Brighton at Stamford Bridge.
Following a 2-0 loss at Goodison Park and a lucky escape in Wales, Italian manager Maurizio Sarri had enough.
When the starting line-up for the Brighton game was announced, Chelsea fans around the world could not contain their excitement.
Why? Because academy products Callum Hudson-Odoi, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Andreas Christensen all featured on a starting Premier League team sheet.
For a fan base fed up with the club’s player management, it was truly a glorious sight.
The English duo – now getting chances for the Three Lions under Gareth Southgate – started again versus West Ham as well as the weekend’s trip to Merseyside.
Eighteen-year-old Hudson-Odoi’s pace and exuberance sparked renewed energy around Stamford Bridge. But the biggest beneficiary of his inclusion was Eden Hazard, who produced two sublime performances.
(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, file)
Now, the elephant in the room. Sunday’s performance.
While the inclusion of both Loftus-Cheek and Hudson-Odoi in the starting eleven was a positive indication of Sarri’s plans, he let himself down with his tactical approach elsewhere.
Following his lively showing in Prague mid-week, Sarri retained Willian in the starting line-up, shifting Hazard to play as a false nine.
It was never going to work.
Hazard is at his best when he plays on the left flank, cutting inside, breaking lines in the opposition defence, and feeding off a centre forward.
As a false nine, he was isolated and outnumbered – a dire situation against a back four as assured and disciplined as Liverpool’s.
His two efforts which could’ve drawn Chelsea level came immediately after Hudson-Odoi gave way for Gonzalo Higuaín.
But that wasn’t the 18-year-old’s fault.
Hazard was simply played out of position.
He’s not the first player to be shifted from their primary position by the Italian manager. Frenchman N’Golo Kante – the best central defensive midfielder in world football – has been shifted across to right midfield to make way for Sarri’s golden boy Jorginho.
Results like those at Anfield on Sunday will happen, but Sarri must persist with his academy products – and the impending transfer ban will force him to do so.
The worst scenario for Chelsea right now would be another change in the manager’s chair, which given Roman Abramovich’s history, is a serious threat.
Chelsea’s next Premier League title isn’t going to come from splashing the cash at the transfer market, because their shenanigans in the past few windows haven’t helped.
In Callum Hudson-Odoi, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Andreas Christensen, they possess a trio of academy products who could potentially headline an era of future dominance if they are given the right opportunities.
Branch out even further and you have the likes of Welsh international Ethan Ampadu, as well as Mount, Abraham and Tomori, who are currently making waves in England’s second tier.
And let’s not forget Dortmund winger Christian Pulisic who will join the club in the summer – insurance in case of Hazard’s departure.
Maurizio Sarri is a banker, and he will need to muster all his financial instinct to turn Chelsea into his most successful long-term investment yet.
He has more than enough capital. And with the FIFA-imposed transfer ban, he now has the strategy.