Gerrard error breaks Reds hearts
(Demba Ba 45+3, Willian 90+4)
No one has done more to drive Liverpool towards an unlikely title bid. No one deserved to be humiliated less.
With one broken stride, Steven Gerrard broke neutral hearts everywhere. The man who carries the weight of Liverpool's world upon his shoulders finally crumpled.
In a rare, devastating moment of weakness, he wilted.
Dramatic acts of brilliance live on in the memory, but a shocking blunder is seared into the soul.
Liverpool can lose the title, but not like this, never like this.
Football is not known for its sense of humour, but this borders on sadistic and cruel.
The skipper lost his footing, the ball and the game. It happens.
But his mistake last night will haunt him for years to come if it isn't rectified in the final two games.
Liverpool now have just 180 minutes to fix this setback and hope that Manchester City give them a helping hand in ending their skipper's eternal nightmares.
In Gerrard's dreams, Demba Ba will have miles to go before he sleeps. His run will replay itself endlessly. The poor pass, the slip, the slide, Ba's interception and his effortless finish beneath an onrushing Simon Mignolet. Gerrard won't forget it. He can't forget it.
His tears against Manchester City showed he was human. Chelsea's opening goal showed he was just as susceptible to human error.
His peerless, pivotal performances in his new position have underpinned Liverpool's title challenge. Ironically, his positioning for the goal undermined Liverpool's tactics.
Determined to break Chelsea's defensiveness, he had dropped deeper to drive Liverpool forward.
He tried to split Chelsea's defence, but ended up splitting his own. As he slotted in between Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho, he pushed them apart like a no-nonsense marriage counsellor dealing with an unhappy couple.
When Sakho passed sideways to Gerrard, there was no other red shirt around him to possibly address his unexpected mistake. Skrtel was nowhere. Ba had a free run at glory.
Against the run of play, Chelsea trotted off at the interval a goal ahead.
Jose Mourinho's spoiling tactics pleased no one beyond the partisan quarters of west London. Perhaps that's the point. Brendan Rodgers can win the popularity contests as the adventurous, artistic apprentice.
His unapologetic master will focus on winning trophies. No other dugout does this stuff better.
With Atletico Madrid always on his mind, Mourinho made seven changes from the first leg of the Champions League semi-final, picking an unfamiliar back five with Mark Schwarzer in goal.
With Nemanja Matic imperious as always, Mohamed Salah and Andre Schuerrle doubled up down the flanks, back-pedalling more often than they penetrated.
Chelsea's soak-and-suffocate strategy was rarely easy on the eye.
Mourinho was a million miles away from caring; about the same distance Ba often seemed to be from his team-mates. But that was the home side's problem and the Reds' usual panache gave way to petulance, with Raheem Sterling particularly frustrated by his inability to break free.
Schwarzer's superb save to deny Joe Allen was Liverpool's first effort on target. It came on the hour mark.
Brittle tension swamped Liverpool's usual attacking swagger, with poor Gerrard particularly culpable, snatching at three long-range shots in a futile effort to redress the balance.
But an obdurate Chelsea held on with one of the most dogged defensive displays of the season.
Mourinho once said it himself with a characteristic lack of humility. It's easy to keep a 1-0 lead.
Just to prove how easy it was, his magnificent men completed the mugging by adding a second when Fernando Torres scampered free in the 94th minute to give Willian an open goal and the Blues a sniff of a title chance.
The teams at the summit may eventually be separated only by goal difference.
At the final whistle, Gerrard was a crushed man.
If they thought they were in his debt before, the Reds certainly owe it to their skipper now to bring home their first domestic title in 24 years.
Gerrard's error deserves to be no more than a footnote in his sterling career.
It cannot surely be his epitaph.