There are many factors why Chelsea may fall short in the top flight – the Europa League still provides another avenue of attack – but the failure to have a prolific striker up front will be one of them. It certainly cost the club at Anfield on Sunday.
Sometimes too much is made of statistics, but the fact Chelsea’s recognised centre forwards have now scored in just four of the team’s last 24 League games is a damning one.
With Alvaro Morata making it clear before the new year that he wanted to depart for Atletico Madrid, the Blues considered a few targets to take his place.
In the end it appeared to come down to two. The youthful promise of Krzysztof Piatek, who was shining at Genoa, versus the vast experience of Gonzalo Higuain.
Piatek represented a gamble. The Poland international found the net an impressive 19 times for Genoa in Serie A in the first half of the campaign, yet was untested at a club of Chelsea’s stature, where the pressure is much higher.
At 23, the forward was clearly not the finished article either and given the Blues needed someone to make an instant impact, it would have been a brave move to make.
A permanent transfer fee of £31m was required, although that was somewhat offset by wage demands of around only £30,000-a-week.
In the end AC Milan paid up for Piatek, whereas Chelsea opted for Higuain, who had been on loan from Juventus at AC Milan.
This was a public show of faith from the board in Sarri, who first asked for the Argentine last summer.
It made a lot of sense at the time. After all, Higuain knew Sarri’s way of playing, was keen to move to west London and had thrived under the Italian at Napoli in 2015-16 when scoring 38 goals.
Sarri and the club ignored talk in Italy over the 31-year-old’s poor form for AC Milan and suggestions that his career was in decline.
Higuain joined on a short-term loan worth £7.8m and a salary package of £150,000-a-week. An agreement is in place to extend it by another 12 months – transfer ban permitting – for £15.5m next season or buy him outright at a price of £31.1m.
However, even if Chelsea delay or get Fifa’s two-window embargo to acquire players overturned, Higuain will surely not be at Stamford Bridge next term.
While Piatkek’s reputation continues to rise following an impressive 10 goals in 14 appearances for his new club, Higuain has laboured for Chelsea and found the net on just three occasions – against relegated Huddersfield and Fulham.
Significantly, even Sarri appears to be losing faith. How else do you explain having the striker you argued so hard to get starting a huge match at Liverpool on the bench? Much respected predecessors Didier Drogba and Diego Costa would definitely not have been sidelined in such a way.
The 60-year-old reverted back to a ‘false nine’ formation with Eden Hazard leading the line instead. It made Chelsea more defensively resolute, but less of a threat at the other end.
For the opening 45 minutes it worked to a degree, although there was always a concern over what would happen should Liverpool breach the backline.
The home outfit seemed motivated from the outset. Three points was a must to return to the top of the table following Manchester City’s triumph at Selhurst Park, but perhaps there was a desire to pay a fitting tribute to the occasion too.
A minute’s silence to observe the 30-year anniversary of Hillsborough was held beforehand. There was also a homage to Liverpool’s former captain Tommy Smith, who passed away aged 74 a few days before.
As much as Chelsea were given cause for optimism before the interval, it was soon extinguished. Firstly by the head of Saido Mane, then from the lethal left foot of Mohamed Salah with a ferocious strike that will be replayed for many a year.
Higuain was sent on to repair the damage, but he failed to test Liverpool keeper Alisson once in the 34 minutes he was on the pitch. The forward was the antithesis of Salah and Mane’s speed at the other end.
His presence did allow Hazard to play in his preferred position on the left hand side at least and the Belgian should have done better with two clear cut opportunities.
But Higuain was a spectator for the most part and Chelsea are once again in danger of watching other English sides in the Champions League next term.