Chelsea and Liverpool could simply not be separated.
No winners at the end of the latest contender for the Premier League’s game of the season as both sets of players sagged under the weight of their excursions at the final whistle.
Liverpool had the control of a 2-0 lead. Chelsea snatched it back in the space of three minutes before half-time and, for all the blows traded in a magnificent match, honours ended even.
No winners at Stamford Bridge?
Well, not exactly. If perhaps not celebrating a full-on triumph, 210 miles away at Etihad Stadium, Manchester City may just have allowed themselves a smile of quiet satisfaction at a result they would have signed up for before kick-off.
Is the title race over? Of course it isn’t, not with so many points to play for and the propensity for unpredictability that can often accompany the Premier League.
Look at the table, however, and it is clear both Chelsea and Liverpool – the only serious rivals to the reigning champions – are looking up an increasingly steep hill if they wish to snatch the crown away from Pep Guardiola’s side.
Chelsea are 10 points behind City, with both playing 21 games, while Liverpool are 11 behind with a match in hand. Not insurmountable, but now relying on a large number of cards to fall in their favour, including a dip in form from a City side that currently looks unstoppable.
While these calculations go on and City looking increasingly in charge of the title race, what was produced at Stamford Bridge was a superb game between two teams of the highest quality, wrestling with varying problems but still able to set out a feast in west London.
Chelsea’s game was played out to the backdrop of striker Romelu Lukaku’s complete exclusion, not even on the bench, after an outspoken interview to Sky Italia that hinted at unhappiness with his current situation and the system employed by manager Thomas Tuchel.
Tuchel took tough action against the striker, saying it had got “too big, too noisy so close to the match”.
It was certainly a strong-arm move by Chelsea’s manager, but was it a case of exerting iron discipline or cutting off his nose to spite his face by leaving his £97.5m record signing out of such a vital game?
Could Lukaku have made that vital contribution in the closing stages with both teams out on their feet and spaces opening up, to snatch those vital extra two points? We will never know.
Chelsea’s fightback after Sadio Mane – fortunate not to be sent off for an elbow on Cesar Azpilicueta in the opening seconds – and Mohamed Salah put Liverpool ahead, answered some of those questions, if not all.
Mateo Kovacic and Christian Pulisic redressed the balance and set the platform for a second half that matched the thrills of the first, but produced a scoreline that played right into Manchester City’s hands.
And therein lies the difference.
City did not play well but grabbed a last-minute winner at Arsenal to grind out an 11th successive league win on Saturday while Chelsea and Liverpool are paying the price for not winning enough games.
Chelsea have been pegged back at home in recent games against Everton and Brighton, while Liverpool, having lost at Leicester City, squandered a position of perfect advantage here.
On the surface Liverpool, with manager Jurgen Klopp at home having had a suspected positive test for Covid-19 and Pep Lijnders in charge, would regard a point at Chelsea as a decent outcome – but not after being 2-0 up and not with every point so precious in the face of Manchester City’s relentless march.
This was still, however, a brilliant game with two sides playing almost with a hint of desperation because City are stretching away. If this was not exactly “win or bust” it was certainly heading that way and it was all-out attack from the first whistle.
Tuchel, an agitated and frantic figure throughout and constantly pumping his arms towards Chelsea’s fans to urge greater noise and encouragement, took the acclaim from the home fans at the final whistle. Lijnders, in a masterpiece of understatement said: “Never boring with us, is it?”
Commendable sentiments, but Liverpool might have been better served making this more boring and exercising better game management from 2-0 up. It is thrilling to watch but very much living on the edge and gave Chelsea a chance they grasped gratefully.
And now Liverpool must contend with losing Mane and Salah to the Africa Cup of Nations – a huge blow – while Chelsea will miss their excellent keeper Edouard Mendy.
It all added to the feeling that this was a day that played out to the satisfaction of Manchester City rather than Chelsea and Liverpool.