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Lacklustre Chelsea indebted to Courtois masterclass


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A Thibaut Courtois masterclass was required to rescue a lackadaisical Chelsea performance in the first leg of their Capital One Cup semi-final tussle with Liverpool.

The Belgian international made a string of excellent second-half saves, most noticeably a magnificent one-handed parry from Adam Lallana's swerving drive, to ensure Chelsea left Anfield with a share of the spoils.

The Blues had gone ahead somewhat against the run of play when Eden Hazard was unceremoniously bundled to the ground inside the Liverpool penalty area - Chelsea's number ten dusted himself down before dispatching the ball into the corner from twelve yards.

But Liverpool responded positively with an excellent second-half showing, and got the goal their resurgence after the interval warranted when they equalised through Raheem Sterling's effort on the hour mark.

From that point onwards it was one-way traffic, with Chelsea unable to cope with the fervent onslaught of their hosts, who, in playing their fifteenth League Cup semi-final, were demonstrating their tremendous pedigree in this competition with an all-guns-blazing offensive display.

Nemanja Matic and John Mikel Obi, both usually so dependable in their defensive midfield duties, were time and time again overrun by the sheer energy of Brandan Rodger's side as Liverpool looked to maintain their run of having never lost the home leg of a semi-final in this competition.

Courtois was called into action on a number of occasions in a game representing something of a baptism of fire, as the Belgian was immediately thrown back into the first team fold following his recent thumb injury.

Chelsea had obviously come to Anfield to avoid defeat, but if it were not for the intervention of their number one, José Mourinho's plans may well have backfired.

The Portuguese made just two changes to the side that thrashed Swansea on Saturday, but there could not have been any greater degree of antithesis between those two respective team performances.

At the Liberty Stadium Chelsea were magnificent, resemblant of Pep Guardiola's Barcelona in the way they majestically caressed the ball about in an almost carefree and effortless manner. The 5-0 scoreline did not do their performance justice.

Yet tonight, Liverpool, in putting in their best performance of the season, outplayed Mourinho's side for large periods of the second half and will feel disappointed not to have amassed a first leg lead.

It is a somewhat damning statement that against a Chelsea side well, well off their best, that Rodgers' side - playing with a degree of intensity they have seldom attained this campaign - failed to score more than their one goal. One wonders if that was their chance to win the tie ahead of next week's return leg at Stamford Bridge.

The opportunity, though, was there for Mourinho's men. Liverpool, for all their endeavour, simply could not gain the advantage they sought after, despite their best attempts. On the odd occasion Chelsea forayed forward, conversely, there was the imminent threat of the proverbial sucker punch.

If caution had have been thrown to the wind Mourinho may well have left Anfield with an advantage, but if Chelsea can get the job done at Stamford Bridge then there will be no complaints.

At times simply sloppy in possession, at others guilty of overplaying when a shot from distance might have been a more appropriate decision, this was a truly frustrating Chelsea performance, where, Hazard's penalty aside, only one wild half-volley from left-back Filipe Luis represented the entirety of their attacking exploits.

Emre Can's wild swing at Hazard inside the box in the 17th minute gave the Blues the perfect platform to kill the tie off against what is, all being told, an average Liverpool side. Hazard successfully beat his compatriot, Simon Mignolet, and from that point it looked as if the Blues were in complete control, at least until half time.

The whole of the first half had seen Courtois make only one save of note as he parried over a dipping drive from Reds skipper Steven Gerrard, but he was called into more wholehearted action after the interval.

He was powerless to prevent Sterling's equaliser as the England man turned inside Matic and, with Gary Cahill and John Terry both backing off and seemingly allergic to making a tackle on the edge of the penalty area, he was granted enough room to scuff the ball into the bottom corner.

The hosts came close to scoring a second in two minutes as first Gerrard kissed the outside of the post with a stabbed effort, before Courtois did well to beat away a powerful drive from Philippe Coutinho, who was growing in prominence as the match wore on.

The Belgian then made a fine double save, first pushing away Jordan Henderson's skidding effort before getting up to grasp Sterling's follow-up with two hands. The initial save, in directing the ball away from the six yard box, had given Courtois the time needed to re-set himself, making the second save easier than it might have been.

But he had to be at his absolute best when, diving backwards, he was able to divert wide a drive from substitute Lallana that was swerving away from his outstretched hand with every inch the ball travelled. A truly stunning piece of athleticism.

Despite vehement protest from the Kop, Courtois was - rightfully - adjudged to released the ball before his momentum on the slide saw him leave the comforts of his penalty area, whilst at the other end, Mohamadou Sakho was extremely lucky that his trip on Diego Costa - a peripheral figure throughout - was not noticed by referee Martin Atkinson.

The final whistle was welcomed by a muffled sound of disappointment from the home fans, who may well feel their opportunity to win this tie has gone - but on tonight's evidence, a similarly lacklustre display at Stamford Bridge could allow Rodgers' side to upset the odds and progress.

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