- The UEFA Super Cup isn't a very significant trophy, but the exercise in Istanbul yielded takeaways that could make the entertaining 120-minute showdown between Liverpool and Chelsea worthwhile for both sides.
It was only the UEFA Super Cup. It was only a glorified friendly. It was a game both sides, frankly, could probably have done without, which perhaps explains why it was quite so open and quite so engaging. They could certainly, on a hot, sticky night in Turkey, have done without it going to extra time and ultimately penalties. Victory for Liverpool, 5-4 on PKs after a 2-2 draw, means little in the wider scheme of things, though its fans will surely relish another penalty shootout win in Istanbul.
In the end, Adrian, starting his first game since West Ham’s FA Cup fourth-round defeat to AFC Wimbledon, was the key figure, kicking away Tammy Abraham’s penalty. Three weeks ago, the Spaniard was training in a park looking for a club after being released at the end of his contract. Brought in as a backup after Simon Mignolet’s transfer, he has been thrust unexpectedly into the limelight after the calf injury Alisson suffered in a season-opening win vs. Norwich City last weekend.
In terms of the Premier League and the season as a whole, though, more significant was probably how improved Chelsea was from Sunday’s 4-0 defeat to Manchester United. The presence of N’Golo Kante gave Chelsea far more security than at Old Trafford when it was picked off four times on the break. The result was another very good Chelsea performance in possession but without the glass jaw that had undermined the club against United. As Kante dominated the first half, it was impossible not to make the comparison to last season when the same midfield three, differently configured, was so often ineffective.
There was balance and flow to Chelsea and–eventually–there was a goal. As a couple of chances came and went and Pedro smacked a shot against the bar, manager Frank Lampard must have wondered whether a goal would ever come. But it did, nine minutes before halftime. Kante was at the heart of it, driving forward from deep and feeding Christian Pulisic. The American's smart run and reverse pass laid in Olivier Giroud, who had already wasted a couple of decent opportunities but this time tucked a neat finish past Adrian.
Pulisic had a highly promising game before fading in the second half and seemed to have doubled Chelsea’s advantage before halftime, cutting in off the left flank and drilling a shot into the bottom corner, only for an offside flag, raised late in the modern style, to cancel it out.
The introduction of Roberto Firmino for Liverpool at halftime had a radical impact on the dynamic. In part, perhaps, that is indicative of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s slightly tentative performance in his first start for 16 months as he feels his way back after a serious knee injury. It had even more, though, to do with Liverpool getting its familiar front three back together. Firmino, immediately, began dropping deep, finding pockets of space off Andreas Christensen and Kurt Zouma, and, by doing so, linked the attack to offer a fluency that had been absent in the opening 45 minutes. Liverpool’s equalizer, though, was the result of some sloppiness from Cesar Azpilicueta, who was slow to push out, playing Firmino onside so he could tee up Sadio Mane.
Luck, suddenly, went Chelsea’s way. Kepa Arrizabalaga was fortunate that when a Jordan Henderson effort was deflected it looped into his hands, but his double save with 15 minutes remaining was exceptional. Mohamed Salah’s shot was deflected, and when Arrizabalaga pushed it out, Virgil van Dijk seemed certain to score on the rebound. But Arrizabalaga somehow had got to his feet and got far enough across goal to push the ball up onto the bar, from where it bounced down onto the post and away.
The game became ragged as it went into extra time with both sides fairly obviously fatigued. By the end, Fabinho had to be helped off the pitch with cramp–although he still took and scored his penalty. A poor offside line cost Chelsea again, with Zouma playing Firmino onside. He cut it back and Mane slammed in off the underside of the bar. Within six minutes, though, Chelsea was level, with Jorginho converting from the spot after Adrian was deemed, perhaps harshly, to have brought down Abraham. It wouldn’t take long for the goalkeeper to find his redemption.
For Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp, the result yielded another trophy and confidence for a reserve goalkeeper suddenly playing a bigger role, but perhaps there are some lingering concerns about his side’s failure to click in the first half. In three games now this season, Liverpool has played well in one half and been rather less impressive in the other. Lampard, clearly, would have loved a first trophy in just his second game as Chelsea manager, but after Sunday's unraveling, this was an important exercise in self-assertion and ensuring crippling doubts did not set in.