Raheem Sterling’s magnificent second-half solo goal earned Liverpool a 1-1 draw with Chelsea in the first leg of their League Cup semi-final at a snow-speckled Anfield on Tuesday.
With Chelsea leading through Eden Hazard’s 18th-minute penalty, Jose Mourinho’s side were poised to pull off a classic smash-and-grab when Sterling surged through their defense to equalize in the 59th minute.
The goal, Sterling’s seventh of the season, was a demonstration of the 20-year-old England forward’s quicksilver brilliance and was reward for a committed and industrious display by Brendan Rodgers’ men.
“I’m delighted with the performance, disappointed with the result. We thoroughly deserved to win the game,” Rodgers said. “We showed wonderful character. Some of our play was very impressive and it sets up the second leg perfectly, because they’ve probably got to open up a bit more.”
“It’s still all to play for,” he said. “It was a great game and that shows the improvements that we’re making.”
Sterling’s goal prevented Premier League leaders Chelsea from recording a third successive victory at Anfield, where they famously derailed Liverpool’s title challenge last season.
Liverpool appear to have belatedly digested that disappointment, having now lost only once in their past 15 outings in all competitions.
However, Chelsea’s away goal means that Mourinho — seeking to win the trophy for a third time — will feel he holds the upper hand ahead of next week’s return leg.
“It’s a draw. I am not sad as a defeat, not as happy as a victory. My emotion is in the middle,” Mourinho told the BBC. “I’m not saying we are favorites now. This semi-final was two legs and now it’s only one match, and that’s at Stamford Bridge. We defended well and our goalkeeper was good.”
The winners are to play either Tottenham Hotspur or third-tier Sheffield United in the English season’s first major final on March 1.
Predictably, Mourinho’s plea for Chelsea’s fans not to sing their song about Steven Gerrard fell on deaf ears, with the visiting supporters quick to remind the Liverpool captain about his notorious slip in the London club’s 2-0 win at Anfield in April last year.
Gerrard almost silenced them in the 16th minute, letting fly with the kind of dipping 30m shot that was once his trademark, only for the recalled Thibaut Courtois to palm it over the bar.
It came after a spell of Liverpool pressure that briefly ignited the freezing crowd, but within two minutes, the hosts were behind.
After Cesc Fabregas darted past him, Emre Can stuck out a leg, and Hazard fell over it. Referee Martin Atkinson deemed it a penalty and Hazard sent his Belgium teammate Simon Mignolet the wrong way from the spot.
It was the precursor to some meaty challenges in midfield, but Liverpool were initially unable to lay a glove on Chelsea where it mattered.
The ball appeared to strike Diego Costa’s arm after he went to ground inside the Chelsea area in first-half stoppage time, but the hosts’ animated penalty appeals were waved away.
Chelsea continued to resist early in the second half, Gary Cahill blocking from Sterling, but just before the hour, Liverpool drew level with a goal of shimmering quality.
Receiving a pass from Jordan Henderson with his back to goal 40m out, Sterling spun away from Nemanja Matic and then glided past Cahill before drilling home with his left foot.
Liverpool had their tails up and a second goal seemed imminent, with Gerrard curling a left-foot shot against the post and Courtois plunging to his right to thwart Philippe Coutinho.
Gerrard made way for Adam Lallana with 20 minutes to play, but the home side continued to pepper Courtois’ goal with shots, obliging the giant Belgian to save from Henderson, Sterling and Lallana.
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