BIG games often don’t live up to the pre-match hype; they have a tendency to be nervy occasions with teams fearing the consequences of losing. Chelsea–Liverpool on Saturday avoided that trap, it was not only a big game, it was a very, very good one.
I watched three games back-to-back on Saturday night (I know, I work too hard): West Ham vs Manchester United, Arsenal vs Watford, and then Chelsea vs Liverpool.
It reminded me of being at the Pacquiao vs Matthysse fight in July, with each successive bout on the card representing a very obvious step up in class.
Each game brought a quickening of pace, an increased intensity in pressing, and a greater inventiveness in the final third of the pitch. In truth, Chelsea and Liverpool looked as though they were playing in a different league.
The effect that Maurizio Sarri has had at Chelsea in just a few months is quite incredible. It’s been a total transformation in the style of play and it appears as though Sarri’s players fully understand what he wants from them.
Stamford Bridge looks a happier place since Antonio Conte’s exit. It’s reported that Sarri has relaxed some of the harsher rules that applied under his disciplinarian predecessor – the dietary regime is a little less strict and the players no longer have to stay in a hotel before home games.
With greater freedom on and off the pitch, Chelsea’s stars are flourishing. Hazard showed again why he’s the brightest star in their firmament and with his sublime assist, Kovacic further confirmed my belief that he’s the signing of the summer.
After the game Sarri said: “I think they are a step forward but I think also that we are closer than I thought one week ago.” That seems a fair assessment.
Both Liverpool and Chelsea look equipped to go the distance in the title race but Chelsea will likely need more of a goal threat beyond Hazard. Manchester City remain favourites for me and their clash with Liverpool this weekend will indicate how seriously Klopp’s side should be taken as title contenders.
Despite only being four points off the top of the league, it’s clear that this is another season in which Arsenal won’t be challenging for the title. The club are rebuilding and we’re not talking about minor repairs.
Unai Emery is tasked with relaying the foundations and he’s made a solid start. The win over Watford was rather fortuitous – Watford were the better side for long spells of the game – but showed some of the resilience that they have lacked in recent seasons.
It will take the Arsenal boss a few more transfer windows to put together a squad that he’s content with. The length of time the rebuilding takes at the Emirates will depend on how quickly the board are willing to back their new manager with significant funds.
The juxtaposition of Arsenal’s performance with that of Liverpool and Chelsea’s showed just how far behind the Gunners have fallen. But Arsenal fans are surely taking hope in the emerging signs that the team are now going in the right direction.
Manchester United fans meanwhile are probably taking another lie down in a darkened room.
The performance at West Ham was woeful, though the Hammers deserve credit for the composed way they played.
It looks increasingly as though Mourinho has lost the dressing room, starting with Pogba. It’s hard for any manager to turn such situations around.
If Mourinho somehow manages to, it will be something pretty special. But usually once a manager loses the dressing room, the next thing that happens is he loses his job. Even a special one.
Craig Wilkie. Football Writer. Football Coach. Football Fan. Follow him on Twitter @ciwilkie