Goals from Eden Hazard and Samuel Eto’o keep Chelsea two points from the top of the table at the halfway stage of the season, as Jose Mourinho’s side came from behind to win.
The final game of 2013 was an enthralling encounter throughout, and we were good value for our half-time lead having recovered well from an early Martin Skrtel goal.
In front of a noisy crowd, the second-half was end-to-end as the draining fixture schedule and high pace of the game ensured plenty of space on the pitch. Liverpool hit the woodwork but Simon Mignolet saved well from Eto’o, as he had done from Frank Lampard before the break.
There were injuries and disputes over penalties not given too, but the result was a deserved and overdue victory over the Merseysiders, our first in the league since 2010.
John Terry played his 600th Chelsea game with Gary Cahill partnering the skipper in central defence and David Luiz playing in midfield for the first time under Jose Mourinho.
It was all change in the central midfield positions with Ramires suspended and John Mikel Obi on the bench. Frank Lampard started.
Cesar Azpilicueta was restored at left-back and Willian came in on the right wing in place of Juan Mata with the other four attacking positions unchanged, so Samuel Eto’o again led the attack.
Liverpool, playing their second top-six clash in four days, made just one change – captain Daniel Agger replacing Aly Cissokho at left-back.
The start, against a side that hadn’t lost at Bridge since 2009, couldn’t have been worse. Samuel Eto’o conceded a free-kick for a challenge on Jordan Henderson midway inside our half with the Liverpool midfielder requiring length treatment. When the free-kick was eventually delivered high into the Chelsea area by Coutinho, the Merseysiders enjoyed the good fortune as Ivanovic and Suarez made their initial challenge for it, the ball falling to Skrtel who couldn’t miss the target from just a few feet out.
Petr Cech’s quest to equal Peter Bonetti’s club record for clean sheets was put on hold with just three minutes played.
Chelsea almost equalised straight away in similar circumstances – but the ball fell less kindly for Lampard in the six-yard box when Hazard’s shot hit Skrtel. Johnson cleared.
The response to the early set-back was a positive one. Cahill headed wide from a Lampard free-kick and then Lampard himself speared a shot from 20 yards that was heading just under the bar until Mignolet touched it over at full stretch. There were also claims for a penalty when Hazard was challenged by Lucas but referee Howard Webb judged he had run into the Brazilian.
On 18 minutes Hazard scored the deserved leveller and it was a fine strike too. A fluid move down the centre with Willian involved looked to have come to nothing when Oscar’s pass forward hit the red-shirted block in front of him, but the rebound was caught beautifully by the right boot of Hazard 25 yards outside the area. It gave Mignolet no chance.
Liverpool had shown very little in an attacking sense since their goal but it needed an excellent tackle from Cahill on 24 minutes when Allen looked almost certain to score, having benefitted from one the quick interchanges of passes that have brought Brendan Rodgers’s team plenty of joy this season.
Just before half an hour was up, Mourinho was forced into a substitution by Ivanovic having slipped and over-extended a leg when readjusting his weight. Having continued on for a couple of minutes, the Serbian was replaced by Ashley Cole with Azpilicueta switching to the right.
Still the Blues kept the pressure on. Hazard, who had predominantly played up against Agger down the right with Willian charged with keeping Glen Johnson’s forward running in check on the other flank, popped up on the left and ran at the former Chelsea full-back before giving Liverpool concerns with his cross.
That bore no fruit but with the next ball into the box Chelsea took the lead. David Luiz had clipped a good pass out to Azpilicueta and when the Spainard crossed, Oscar was given two chances to get the ball into the danger zone, the second one finding Eto’o. Stabbed towards the target, Mignolet got hands to the ball but as with Man City’s Boxing Day winner, the Belgian keeper couldn’t keep it out.
Johnson was booked for catching Hazard in the face as half-time approached, and then Cech was called upon to make a good save to preserve the lead with four minutes to go to the break, Raheem Sterling’s cross having hit Cole and given Allen the chance to shoot. Sterling had been allowed to run behind our defence unmarked, a rare moment of slackness in the half. On the whole, Chelsea could be pleased with their performance in the opening half of an entertaining encounter.
Before the second period kicked off, a second Chelsea sub was made – Mikel replacing Lampard – and within three minutes of the restart we had two players in the book, both for challenges on Allen. Terry was one and David Luiz the other, the Brazilian’s shirt tug earning him a suspension for the next match.
A troubled start to the second half for the Blues continued when Mamadou Sakho headed against the bar with Cech rooted after a free-kick routine.
On 52 minutes we were back on the front foot when David Luiz won the ball on halfway and Hazard found Eto’o with a sight at goal. Mignolet did well to keep out a fierce near-post strike.
Suarez struck a volley straight at Cech after he had bundled the ball off Mikel to set an attack going and then Coutinho had a shot blocked by Cahill having nipped past Azpilicueta. It was shaping it up to be a more even contest than the first half.
The fatigue of the Christmas period took its toll on Liverpool when Allen pulled up with an injury. Nineteen-year-old Brad Smith came on for his debut.
On 70 minutes Oscar went close with a chance all of his own making. In a battle of the Brazilians he won the ball from Lucas and then wriggled away before shooting low just past the far post. Cech then had to push a Johnson shot round the post and Hazard shot wide as these two sides continued to trade blows.
Cahill became the third Chelsea player booked with 78 minutes played when his sliding tackle caught Suarez and from the Uruguayan’s free-kick, Cech punched away commandingly.
There was anger from the Chelsea bench when Suarez went down in the Chelsea area as Eto’o challenged him. The game played on and was now inside the final 10 minutes.
Both sides were tiring and possession was switching as mistakes were made, but it wasn’t detracting from the spectacle. Late substitute Torres looked poised to find the net against his former club after cutting through them with a run but shot too close to the keeper.
Deep into stoppage time there was a late flare-up when Lucas took exception to an Oscar foul on him with both players booked. Mignolet came up for the free-kick but with Mourinho urging the crowd to roar the team home, it was cleared and three points and a belief-boosting win was ours.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1):Cech; Ivanovic (Cole 29), Cahill, Terry (c), Azpilicueta; D Luiz, Lampard (Mikel h-t); Hazard, Oscar, Willian; Eto’o (Torres 85).
Unused subs Schwarzer, Essien, Schurrle, Mata.
Scorers Hazard 18, Eto’o 32.
Booked Terry 46, David Luiz 48, Cahill 78, Oscar 90+3.
Liverpool (4-1-4-1):Mignolet; Johnson (Aspas 82), Skrtel, Sakho (Toure 89), Agger (c); Lucas; Sterling, Allen (Smith 59), Henderson Coutinho; Suarez.
Unused subs Jones, Cissokho, Rossiter, Alberto.
Scorer Skrtel 3.
Booked Johnson 40, Lucas 90+3.
Referee Howard Webb