Mateo Kovacic scored one of the goals of the season as Chelsea fought back to draw 2-2 with Liverpool in a pulsating Premier League encounter.
Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah had given the Reds a two-goal lead at Stamford Bridge on Sunday in their final game before departing for Africa Cup of Nations duty.
Chelsea were not lacking firepower in the absence of dropped record signing Romelu Lukaku as they roared back with two goals in quick succession late in the first half, Kovacic reducing the deficit with a sumptuous volley and Christian Pulisic equalising.
Both sides had their chances to come out on top in the battle between second and third, but it was leaders Manchester City who were the big winners as they hold a 10-point advantage at the summit.
Mane may have been fortunate to only be shown a yellow card when he caught Cesar Azpilicueta in the face with his arm just six seconds into a game that saw the introduction of safe standing at Stamford Bridge.
Pulisic wasted a great chance to open the scoring early on, rounding Caoimhin Kelleher – starting with Alisson out due to a positive COVID-19 test – after Trent Alexander-Arnold’s attempted clearance struck Mason Mount and left the United States forward with only the Reds’ stand-in goalkeeper to beat.
Mane made no mistake in the ninth minute, capitalising on a bad mistake from Trevoh Chalobah by rounding Edouard Mendy and finishing with his left foot.
Salah then struck against his former club 26 minutes in, exquisitely controlling a brilliant pass from Alexander-Arnold and beating Mendy at his near post with a clinical finish after darting beyond Marcos Alonso in the penalty area.
Chelsea stormed back with two goals in the space of four minutes to go in at the break on level terms, Kovacic’s sublime 20-yard volley going in off the right post before Pulisic raced clear and coolly tucked home in stoppage time.
The two title hopefuls continued to pose a huge threat going forward following the interval and Mendy had to dive at full stretch palm away out Salah’s lob when he spotted the Blues keeper off his line.
Kelleher showed sharp reflexes to keep out Pulisic’s half-volley and Mount tested the Irishman from long range, but both sides had to settle for a point.
What does it mean? City in command of title race
Although Chelsea would have probably taken a point when they were 2-0 down, a draw is not what either side had in mind given relentless champions City have opened up a big gap at the top of the table.
Liverpool suffered further blows when Alisson, Roberto Firmino and Joel Matip joined Jurgen Klopp in being forced to isolate following positive COVID-19 tests, but Mane and Salah looked to have put them on course to move above Chelsea into second spot.
The European champions showed great character to hit back in a breathless first half, but they were unable to force a winner from a huge game that Lukaku was not involved in after Thomas Tuchel punished the striker for stating he is not happy with how his second spell at the London club is going.
Salah and Mane make their mark before AFCON departure
Much has been made of the impact that Salah and Mane’s involvement in the AFCON will have on Liverpool’s season.
The duo once again showed what the Reds will be missing, Salah scoring his 23rd goal of the season in all competitions and Mane finding the back of the net for the first time in 10 matches.
Salah has been involved in 25 Premier League goals (16 goals, 9 assists) this season, 12 more than any other player.
Kovacic shows his class
Kovacic was outstanding in the middle of the park and produced a moment of sheer class to get Chelsea back in the game.
He completed 60 of his 70 passes, had a game-high 104 touches and gained possession 11 times in an all-action display.
Key Opta Facts
– After losing four consecutive Premier League games against Liverpool between 2019 and 2020, Chelsea are unbeaten in their last three against the Reds (W1 D2).
– Chelsea have drawn five of their last six Premier League home games (W1), drawing three consecutive league matches at Stamford Bridge for the first time since February 2016 (a run of four under Guus Hiddink).
– There have been four instances in the Premier League this season of a side failing to win a game in which they have led by two or more goals, with Liverpool accounting for two of those occasions (2-2 vs Brighton and Hove Albion in October and this game vs Chelsea).
– Since the start of his first season with Liverpool (2016-17), only Harry Kane (40) has scored the opening goal in more different Premier League games than Sadio Mane (37), while the Senegalese forward is also the first Liverpool player to score in consecutive appearances away to Chelsea in the competition.
Mohamed Salah has been directly involved in 14 goals in his last 14 Premier League games in London for Liverpool (9 goals, 5 assists) and becomes the club’s outright Premier League top scorer in the capital (14) overtaking Steven Gerrard (13).
Both sides are in EFL Cup semi-final action, with Chelsea taking on Tottenham on Wednesday and Liverpool back in London for the first leg of their semi-final against Arsenal the following day.