Glen Johnson (right) and teammates celebrate Sunday's winning goal. (Photo credit: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images).
Chelsea's swan dive continued Sunday with a bad 2-1 loss to Liverpool at Stamford Bridge. The Blues have now dropped three of their last four games, and only the charitable would describe them as stalled. Liverpool, on the other hand, look to have the top four in their sights as it stands, leaping over Arsenal on goal difference to join a four-team logjam on the edge of the European zone.
With a third of the season gone, Chelsea are a full four games behind Manchester City and seem to be badly lacking at the basics. They appear to be as hamstrung by inexperience on the sideline as they are by age on the field.
Sunday, the Blues were outworked, outthought, and outcoached by a Liverpool side not always feted for its fleetness. Aside from a 20-minute spell in the second half -- sparked by a youngster, Daniel Sturridge, no less -- Liverpool took this game from Chelsea in every sense.
It's hard to fault young Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas for being outmatched by the vastly more experienced Kenny Dalglish. But it is hard to feel sympathy for Villas-Boas, either, as he seems to have fallen into a pattern of stubbornness. The weaknesses Chelsea displayed are well-known and yet Villas-Boas made no attempt to account for them until after Liverpool had routed his side in the first half.
Chelsea's midfield is ponderous, its defense is suspect, and they have a man wearing the armband who shouldn't be anywhere near the field, given his flaws. But instead of sitting John Terry and Jon Obi Mikel, both started. Chelsea paid a high price for that faith. Both men indeed continued their present form, which is abominable.
Terry is now being isolated and punished for his lack of speed and inability to cover. Time and time again, Luis Suarez and Craig Bellamy ran right around the immobile skipper, forcing Chelsea into increasingly dire positions. Now, Terry's partner, David Luiz has been criticized for his rashness, but spare the Brazilian a thought: He's playing in the center of the defense virtually by himself and, to boot, has no outlet in front of him with Michael Essien on injury leave.
Terry and Mikel's weaknesses have a ripple effect on this team, which Dalglish smartly exploited by deploying a smothering five-man midfield. Even when Ramires was able to create space, Didier Drogba was stranded up top, Juan Mata was left clutching at straws and Florent Malouda was reduced to irrelevance. Charlie Adam pulled the strings with pace and efficiency for the Reds, always ensuring that Liverpool had shape when out of possession (and bite when it did).
Chelsea partisans will point to the second half, a far better effort that saw Sturridge get Malouda and Drogba involved. The Blues did indeed seem to have turned a corner, switching from the futile 4-3-3 they have too often deployed to a more intriguing 4-2-3-1 that allowed Drogba to bull his way into the Liverpool box. Certainly, with Martin Skrtel looking a weak link, the tactics should have been more productive. They were not: After Sturridge put them level, Pepe Reina made a stunning save that proved to break the attack.
With Chelsea pressing and unable to shift as neatly as Liverpool, once the Reds outlasted the pressure, they were able to again take the game up top. Suarez was a handful all night long, and his persistence would lead to the endgame, a period where Chelsea were forced to huddle back and play a higher line than comfortable. Adam would make them pay for this with a fine crossfield ball to back Glen Johnson, who scampered in from the right, blowing through Terry and his teammates to score a beauty past Cech.
Villas-Boas did make one concession to form: He benched Fernando Torres. That's unlikely to have sat well with mercurial owner Roman Abramovich, and the manager was forced to deny reports of a rift with his boss. Those "reports" are likely to become facts if the young man cannot turn things around in a hurry.