Of course Chelsea won. Of course.
Yesterday's match between Liverpool and Chelsea at Anfield should have been the happy climax of what has been one of the greatest stories of the season. Liverpool were once a great club, and, to some, everything right and noble and just about soccer. They were a working class team, with working class fans and a working class captain in Steven Gerrard. They had working class players and played working class soccer, rarely gorgeous but always earnest, honest, and they won 18 First Division titles doing it. In 2005, they won the Champions League against AC Milan on penalties after trailing 3-0 at half. To a specific subset of people, Liverpool embodied every good thing about English soccer, and about England.
Then, after finishing second to Manchester United in 2009, England's paladins fell off a cliff. They were outspent and ultimately outcoached, outbid, and outcompeted by richer clubs, and languished in midtable hell for this entire decade. Last year, they finished seventh, 28 points off the title. We assumed they would this year, too. But once more, Liverpool fought back.
They did so through evolution. Though captain Gerrard, now older than fuck with a body to match, was no longer the box-to-box terror that he once was, he's reinvented himself as a game-changing holding midfielder who commanded his men not from the front or heart of battle, but from in front of his back line. That back line, mind you, has always been a back four, just because that's what Liverpool do, but this season, manager Brendan Rogers switched to a free-ranging 5-3-2 formation, more at home in the Mexican league than anywhere east of the Atlantic ocean. English striker Daniel Sturridge was sold to Liverpool from Chelsea in January 2013 after being considered a highly-talented, highly-wasteful washout who would never, ever be good enough to lead the Blues' line. Instead, he teamed up with Luis Suárez, the semi-disgraced racist, biting, handballing Uruguayan forward who was every bit a superstar and every bit a roach of a man, and sat out the first five games of the season before playing himself back into our hearts by going on a one-man, season-long scoring spree through the Premier League. And dammit, we forgave him. Suárez is leading the league in goals and assists this season (30 and 12), and the Sturridge/Suárez partnership combined for 50—50—goals, more than half of the league's clubs.
(Phillippe Coutinho, Raheem Sterling, and Martin Skrtel have been revelations, too. Mamadou Sakho and Simon Mignolet are pretty great. The whole team, really.)
Liverpool ascended to the top of the Premier League, and did so by playing some of the most beautiful, most ingenious, most fun attacking soccer in the world. Liverpool this year were inevitable, and going into Sunday's match against Chelsea, had scored 96 goals in 35 matches. That's five more than Manchester City, whose UAE owners are richer, probably, than God Himself, and have spent more money on players in six years than some of us could spend in six lifetimes to concoct an undeniably great, frankly evil squad that scores virtually at will and throws up nigh-American football scores against some of the world's best clubs, and—depending on who you ask—is Very Literally Every Single Motherfucking Thing Wrong With The Sport. After a 2-1 loss to City in the beginning of the season, Liverpool outperformed them on April 13, and beat them 3-2 to separate themselves from City and place one calloused hand on the Premier League title.
Going into Sunday's match against against Chelsea, a win or even a draw would have all but completed Liverpool's rebirth, capping their five-season fight back to the summit of the world's most popular, most competitive league. Unfortunately, standing in their way was manager José Mourinho.
To a specific subset of people, Mourinho is the worst person in the whole, entire world. This is because the Special One, as he's called, is a singular genius who jaunts whimsically from team to team, from league to league, and wins trophies, year after year, no matter what, and does so while being one of the most arrogant sports figures to ever walk the Earth.
Mourinho is so hated because he is a a real-life, in-the-flesh, honest-to-God supervillain, whose arrogance has paved the way for his cynicism, which has led him to cracking the code and solving soccer.
When you honestly, truly feel you're the greatest thing to ever hold a clipboard, you stop giving a fuck what people think. You stop giving a fuck about what the media writes. You stop giving a fuck about the aesthetics of your team's philosophy. You solely chase points and titles.
Last fall and all year, we crowed that Mourinho had finally overstepped when he let young striker Romelu Lukaku go on loan to Everton. Lukaku immediately began scoring in bunches, while Chelsea's three strikers—the ancient Samuel Eto'o, the diminished Fernando Torres, and the never-was Demba Ba—have scored 18 goals between them this year, less than Suárez, Sturridge, and City midfielder Yaya Touré have each tallied themselves. Going into Sunday's match against Liverpool, though, Chelsea sat in third place in England's top flight, and had advanced to the semifinal round of the Champions League. Mourinho earlier said that he'd given up on the Premier League title, and that his focus was on the more prestigious European trophy. Iconic keeper Petr Čech was out for the season, and center back John Terry and newly-minted English Young Player of the Year Eden Hazard were both trying to return from injury. Neither made the bench on Sunday. Early in the week, Mourinho said that he'd field his reserves on Sunday so that his best 11 would be healed up for the more important semifinal match against Atlético Madrid this week.
It was cynical, a dismissal of the importance of the Liverpool, an anticlimactic end to Liverpool's dream season. And Mourinho wasn't even wrong! Liverpool failed to qualify for Europe competition this year, and were bounced from the League Cup and FA Cup fairly early. They've only played five games outside of the Premier League this campaign. Chelsea, in that same span, have played 21. It was wiser to rest his players for the Champions League. But... after all this, after all Liverpool have been through, Chelsea were just going to give them the trophy?
But this was still Chelsea, and Roman Abramovitch has spent more money in his tenure on players as owner than any of us can conceive. So though Chelsea fielded a weakened squad, it was still full of stone-cold veterans, and 20-year-old scapegoat center back Tomas Kalas.
Mourinho has been hailed and destroyed for his cynical, defensive approach to the sport, and has won titles both domestically and internationally by getting all men behind the ball and defending for ninety minutes and waiting for his opponents to blink first. On Sunday against Liverpool, he did just that.
Liverpool hammered Chelsea, dominated possession 3:1, and more than doubled Chelsea's shots over the match. Mourhinho's squad stayed behind the ball, clogged up channels, and, for 45 minutes, stonewalled one of the most unstoppable, most ferocious attacking teams in the world. And then Liverpool blinked.
In the first half's stoppage time with Liverpool deep in Chelsea's half, Gerrard took a bad first touch, then slipped as the ball rolled by him and directly to Demba Ba. Ba carried the ball 30 yards, and then passed it into the net just before half to give Chelsea the lead, 1-0.
The second half was more of the same. Liverpool probing, penetrating, pressing the action, and Chelsea stacking their players up inside of the goalmouth to prevent a score. According to Squawka, Chelsea only completed 147 passes all game. Liverpool manager Rogers later said, "I think there were two buses parked today, never mind one."
In the third minute of second-half stoppage time, Liverpool had all but their keeper pressed within 40 yards of Chelsea's goal, hoping desperately for a miracle, likely title-winning, tying goal. But Chelsea instead forced a turnover, and 80 yards later, midfielder Willian—whom Mourinho bought to prevent Tottenham from purchasing him at the beginning of the season—walked it into the Liverpool net.
Anfield fans wept, and Mourinho ran down the sideline, pumping his fists and beating his chest like, well, like he'd just done that. He wasn't wrong.
Mourinho is the greatest manager in the world, and one of the greatest in the history of the sport. In one game, over 90 minutes, it would be complete and utter lunacy to bet against Mourinho. He's just too good.
Chelsea, still trailing Liverpool by two points, still most likely won't win the Premier League. But Mourinho's trolled all of us, because now, there's a great chance Liverpool might not, either. Manchester City in third trail Liverpool by three points, but have a game in hand and have the advantage on goal differential. If both teams win out, City will most likely lift the Premier League trophy.
And that's why the Liverpool loss hurts so much. There's little room for fantasy in this sport. Happy endings don't exist. Soccer is class warfare, a battle between the haves and the have-nots, and those with more money and resources always win. In soccer, The Empire is undefeated. And José Mourinho, the world's greatest sellsword, the man who has discovered nothing in soccer but how to win, is its face.