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Willian holds nerve for Chelsea to end 10-man Manchester City’s reign

Willian holds nerve for Chelsea to end 10-man Manchester City’s reign 2020-06-26Leave a comment

In the end, perhaps it was strangely fitting that Liverpool’s jubilee should be met with pure silence. Perhaps a moment on this scale deserved a little pause for thought. Time for the sheer disorienting size of the achievement to sink in. Time to reflect on the extreme weirdness of the circumstances in which it was achieved: 200 miles from Anfield, with none of the protagonists present.

But history will not recall the fact that their first league title in 30 years was not sealed on their own turf in the Merseyside springtime, but on a baking summer’s night in west London courtesy of a Willian penalty. What it will recall is the scintillating, stupefying brilliance of Jürgen Klopp’s side from front to back. It will, just about, remember the party afterwards. Yes, it turns out a title shorn of all the usual trimmings – players on the field, a crowd in the stadium, a parade on the streets, hugs and high-fives all round – still feels just as sweet.

One of English football’s almighty itches – one lasting almost a quarter of the club’s history – has been scratched. Since Kenny Dalglish’s team won Division One in 1990, the roll of honour contains 13 Manchester Uniteds, five Chelseas, four Arsenals, four Manchester Citys, a Leeds, a Blackburn and a Leicester. And now, 2019-20: Liverpool, a team that for six months have been champions-in-waiting, waiting for a rain that has finally fallen.

This was a game that both embellished their achievement and explained it. What makes Liverpool’s achievement so formidable is the fact that they have had to clear a higher bar than any team before them has managed: the bar set by Pep Guardiola’s City from 2017 onwards. Yet over the course of the season City’s occasional glitches in concentration have cost them dearly, and here again they made the sort of errors that have finally seen them toppled from their plinth.

It was with a certain doomed futility that at 8.15pm, the whistle blew and City’s tropical-yellow shirts set about trying to push back the hurricane with their bare hands. They had picked a near full-strength side, with Bernardo Silva slotting into a front three in the absence of Sergio Agüero, and an agreeable tempo being set by Rodri and Kevin De Bruyne in the centre. Chelsea, meanwhile, settled in for the long haul, Mason Mount and Andreas Christensen particularly effective. Resisting City is as much a test of nerve as technique: let them pin you back in your own third and it might be 10 minutes before they let you out again.

Yet for all City’s possession and territory, Chelsea largely held out for half an hour, their only real chances coming from a Riyad Mahrez interception and a Fernandinho header: the first gifted by a slack Kepa Arrizabalaga clearance, the second brilliantly saved by him. Have three minutes ever encapsulated Arrizabalaga better?

Meanwhile, every so often something strange would happen: Chelsea would finagle the ball up the field and fashion a decent opening. Ilkay Gündogan was forced into a desperate clearance. Ederson saved brilliantly from Christensen. That seemed to flick a switch in Chelsea: the moment they sprang from their traps, and realised the game was there for the seizing.

Even so, as Antonio Rüdiger headed away a City corner on 35 minutes, little immediate danger portended itself. But as Gündogan and Benjamin Mendy casually left the ball for each other, Pulisic stole in and claimed it, galloping past Mendy and placing a low shot past Ederson. Jubilant teammates pursued him to the corner flag. “Brilliant, mate!” shouted Olivier Giroud in what appeared to be a perfect Cockney accent. On the touchline, Frank Lampard urged calm.”We go again,” he said.

And they did, but so did City. Bernardo and Rodri made way for Gabriel Jesus and David Silva. Mendy, seeking instant expiation, smashed a shot into the top tier of the Shed. It took De Bruyne, with the help of a needless foul from N’Golo Kanté, to restore a little sanity to proceedings as only he knows how. There was an insouciance, even an indifference, to the way he stepped up from 25 yards and simply pinged the ball into the top corner, as if it were easier to score than miss.

So, then, to the thrilling theatrical finish: a game that seemed to hollow out in the middle, as both sides realised the pointlessness of a draw. Raheem Sterling capped a brilliant counterattack by chipping against a post. Walker scraped the ball off the line after Pulisic had rounded the goalkeeper. And finally, the dramatic flourish: a goalmouth scramble ending with Fernandinho twice clearing off the line from Tammy Abraham, the second time – fatally – with his hand. A red card for Fernandinho, a fine penalty by Willian, and a party three decades in the making could finally begin in earnest.

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