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It had been tempting to fixate on Thomas Tuchel’s decision to drop Romelu Lukaku from the Chelsea squad after that interview. But it was a measure of what followed during 90 pulsating minutes that the club’s record signing – and all the drama around him – came to feel like a footnote.

Tuchel said he did not select Lukaku because his situation had represented too much of a distraction on the eve of the game – what with him saying he was unhappy at the club and questioning the manager’s system. Not for the first time Chelsea coped pretty well without him.

During a thrilling first half they rallied from two goals down, restoring parity through a Mateo Kovacic wonder strike and a tidy finish from Christian Pulisic. When Chelsea can summon this sort of surge, it makes a mockery of their recent Premier League form, which now shows only four wins out of nine.

Liverpool played a full part in an entertaining spectacle, their goals coming from Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah; the former snapping a nine-match scoring drought, the latter continuing his red-hot touch. Salah’s goal was the latest gem in his collection and the way that he froze Marcos Alonso with a shake of the hips to open up the chance from a tight angle was one of the game’s many memorable moments.

Mané and Salah now depart for the Africa Cup of Nations and so does the Chelsea goalkeeper, Edouard Mendy, who was excellent here – providing further curveballs for their clubs in a season that has been full of them.

The second half did not quite live up to the excitement and tempo of the first, both teams coming to look leggy in the closing stages, even if there were chances at either end and, when the dust had settled, there was one manager who was the happiest of all.

It was not Tuchel or Jürgen Klopp, who did not travel after he tested positive for Covid. It was Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola, who can see a 10‑point lead over Chelsea and 11 over Liverpool, albeit the latter club have a game in hand. The title race is not yet over but it feels increasingly close to it.

Liverpool had been undermined by the losses of the Covid positives Alisson, Joel Matip and Roberto Firmino and, if it was strange not to see Klopp on the touchline, it was easy to imagine him charging around back on Merseyside when Mané scored the opening goal.

Trevoh Chalobah got himself into a tangle, electing to stoop and head clear when Diogo Jota played the ball forward, even though it was there for the volley, and he succeeded only in ushering in Mané, who sliced inside Mendy and slammed past César Azpilicueta on the line.

The big question was whether Mané should have been on the field. He had chased a high ball forward from the opening kick-off, raising his forearm and going into Azpilicueta with it, the Chelsea captain crumpling to the ground. “A clear red,” Azpilicueta said, and Tuchel agreed. What saved Mané was that he did not swing the arm. It was yellow rather than red. Tuchel raged in his technical area.

Salah shimmered with menace and he went close in the sixth minute after Chalobah’s loose header to Mané, who ran and crossed. Antonio Rudiger jumped into the saving challenge, sending the ball back towards his own goal, where Mendy saved smartly.

Salah’s goal was a beauty, starting with the touch to kill a Trent Alexander-Arnold pass up the right. Once he had seen off Alonso, he opened up his body and a range of options. He chose the whipped shot for the near corner, which was too much for Mendy.

Chelsea had started to feel more and more aggrieved with the referee, Anthony Taylor – not a popular figure in these parts – and they needed an important slide tackle from Chalobah to stop the breaking Salah on 36 minutes.

At that point the notion that Chelsea would be level at the interval was outlandish. But they got there after Kovacic’s volley from the edge of the area. Caoimhin Kelleher, who deputised impressively for Alisson, punched clear from Alonso’s free‑kick and Kovacic set himself as the ball dropped, placing it with the laces of his right boot up and in off the far post.

Pulisic’s day had begun badly when he blew a gilt-edged one‑on‑one with Kelleher in the seventh minute, after Kai Havertz, who led the line in Lukaku’s absence, charged down an Alexander-Arnold clearance. Pulisic would atone. With Stamford Bridge in a frenzy, Rudiger stepped up to rob Salah and, when N’Golo Kanté helped the ball on, Pulisic once again had only Kelleher to beat. This time he did so and there would still be time before half-time for Mason Mount to stab past the far post for Chelsea.

Liverpool ran through Chelsea on a number of occasions before seeing belatedly raised offside flags and, if Mendy did not get the credit he deserved for saving in those situations, he would do on others. His stop to beat away a Salah lob in the 57th minute was of the highest order and he was alert to deny Mané moments later.

Alonso had shot wastefully high after the second-half restart while Chelsea could also point to a close‑range Pulisic effort on the hour from Alonso’s cross that drew a fine save out of Kelleher.