Liverpool’s hopes of Champions League qualification were all but ended on Sunday as they drew 1-1 at newly crowned Premier League champions Chelsea in a langourous end-of-season encounter.
Both goals were headers scored by former England captains, with Chelsea skipper John Terry’s fifth-minute opener cancelled out shortly before half-time by his Liverpool counterpart Steven Gerrard.
Gerrard’s goal prevented him from tasting defeat on his last Stamford Bridge appearance, but with Liverpool now six points below Manchester United with six points to play for — and a vastly inferior goal difference — their top-four bid is effectively over.
With the dubious consolation of a Europa League berth awaiting, attention will now turn to next weekend’s visit of Crystal Palace, when Gerrard will make his final Anfield appearance before he leaves for the Los Angeles Galaxy.
There was nothing riding on the game for Chelsea, who secured the title by beating Palace last weekend, but manager Jose Mourinho gave a nod to the future by handing a full debut to 19-year-old Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
Liverpool elected to grant Chelsea’s players a guard of honour as they emerged from the tunnel and the hosts, a little gallingly, laid out a length of blue carpet for the purpose.
But expectations of a congenial afternoon evaporated within seconds of kick-off as Cesc Fabregas slid in on Raheem Sterling and caught the Liverpool forward high on the ankle.
The Spaniard was booked, while referee Andre Marriner sowed confusion by appearing to flash a red card in the direction of John Mikel Obi, only to quickly return it to his pocket.
Within five minutes Chelsea led. Fabregas bent a corner from the right towards the back post and Terry eluded Rickie Lambert to plant a downward header past Simon Mignolet.
Mikel was partnered in midfield by Loftus-Cheek and Liverpool sought to exploit the unfamiliarity there by shuffling the ball forward through the middle.
Sterling shot wide and Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois saved with his legs from Philippe Coutinho, while Glen Johnson found the side-netting after wriggling along the byline on the left.
Seemingly determined to play the villain, Fabregas kept Liverpool on alert by springing his side forward at every opportunity.
His pass from deep to Loic Remy forced Mignolet to race from his line and save, and he later saw a shot from a tight angle on the right deflected wide by the Belgian.
Gerrard tumbled while pursuing Fabregas at one point, prompting crowing chants of ‘Steven Gerrard, he slips when he wants!’ in reference to the Liverpool skipper’s infamous slip from last season’s reverse fixture.
But the sight of French centre-back Kurt Zouma hobbling off to be replaced by Gary Cahill in the 34th minute intruded upon the hosts’ harmony and by half-time, Liverpool were level.
After Branislav Ivanovic had been penalised for tugging back Adam Lallana, Jordan Henderson clipped a free-kick to the back post and Gerrard headed in.
He eschewed a celebration against the club he twice came close to joining, instead jogging back to his own half unceremoniously.
Liverpool came within a whisker of completing the turnaround early in the second half, Coutinho side-footing wide from Sterling’s cut-back, before Willian twice went close at the other end.
But champions or not, Mourinho was in no mood for charity, as he demonstrated by sending on Nemanja Matic for the promising Loftus-Cheek, who departed having completed all 27 of his attempted passes.
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers took the opportunity to showcase two youngsters of his own, sending on 18-year-old Jerome Sinclair for his league debut and 19-year-old Jordon Ibe.
There were openings at either end for Sterling and Fabregas, but neither player tested the goalkeeper and the game faded out in the sunshine.
Photo Credits : AFP