The Belgium international earns the praise of his manager after dazzling display in 2-1 win.
Hazard lights up Stamford Bridge as Chelsea edge their way past Liverpool
LONDON // There is a quality that is hard to define that marks out the best managers: the capacity to get their side winning games in which they are not the obviously dominant side – and Jose Mourinho has it in abundance.
Chelsea have scrambled their way to results at times this season, and although their 2-1 victory over Liverpool on Sunday included probably the best half hour of football they have produced this season, this was a game they won largely because, at the key moments, they were more decisive than Liverpool.
For Brendan Rodgers’s side, there must have been a terrible sense of deja vu. This was the template of the Manchester City game on Boxing Day repeated – they took the lead, missed chances, were punished for sloppiness and went in at half time down a goal thanks to an error from their goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.
Liverpool topped the Premier League on Christmas Day, but they go into New Year’s Day six points off the pace – and just two points ahead of Manchester United. For them, though, there is little reason for panic. They have performed admirably in back-to-back defeats, and United aside, they have the putative top seven still to play at Anfield.
The improbable title challenge is still possible, but a top-four spot and Uefa Champions League qualification, which was always the realistic aim, remain on.
The opener came after three minutes as Luis Suarez got his head to Philippe Coutinho’s left-wing free kick. Branislav Ivanovic, who later had to go off with a knee injury, made the block, but the ball fell for Martin Skrtel to stab home.
Chelsea’s response was “fantastic”, Mourinho said, the verve and directness the Portuguese demands evident when Eden Hazard levelled after 17 minutes, whipping a snapshot into the top corner after Oscar’s run had been interrupted.
“He’s working fantastically,” Mourinho said of the Belgium international. “He was just enjoying football in a fun way: now he understands football is about responsibility – it’s not like when you play football in the streets.”
Mignolet had been at fault for Alvaro Negredo’s winner for Manchester City on Boxing Day, and his weak wrists were again to blame as Samuel Eto’o’s scuffed shot dribbled past him into the corner.
Liverpool came again in an even second half and Mamadou Sakho almost levelled seven minutes after the break, his looping header from Jordan Henderson’s cross beating Petr Cech but bouncing back off the crossbar.
Eto’o scored his third league goal of the season, but the defining aspect of his play was his strange spikiness. As Rodgers observed, another referee on another day might have considered the foul on Henderson that led to the opening goal – the studs were high, if not thrust especially forcefully – worthy of a red card.
Later on, he shoved a leg in front of Suarez long after the ball had gone and might have conceded a needless penalty.
“It’s not a tackle,” said Mourinho, accusing Suarez of “doing an acrobatic swimming-pool jump” and insisting he should have been booked.
“It’s not good for our game,” Mourinho continued, before suggesting diving was part of Latin culture.
Oscar could also count himself lucky not to have been sent off after he scissored Lucas Leiva during injury time, although the Liverpool midfielder was also fortunate his reaction earned him no punishment.
There might also have been a penalty for Chelsea in the first half when Lucas appeared to trip Hazard, but still, Liverpool, for the second game in a row, had reason to feel they had not received the rub of the green with refereeing decisions.
But harping on about conspiracies and referees is a smokescreen, something Rodgers seemed to acknowledge. He was certainly far calmer than he was after the City game.
Liverpool’s frustration is understandable, but what put them in the position for officials’ calls to make a difference were a couple of moments of sloppiness or indecisiveness that are not unusual in such a young squad.