LIVERPOOL, England — Just for a brief moment, it looked as though Christian Pulisic was going to gatecrash Liverpool’s Premier League title party. While all the fireworks were going off around Anfield, the Chelsea forward appeared to be on a mission to singlehandedly claim the spotlight by securing Champions League qualification for his team.
Pulisic, named on the substitutes’ bench for the second successive game by manager Frank Lampard, did not quite manage to steal Liverpool’s thunder on the night that they finally got their hands on the Premier League trophy, but he came close to it.
Chelsea ended up on the wrong side of a 5-3 scoreline against Jurgen Klopp’s champions and, after trailing 3-0 inside 42 minutes, it was no surprise that they suffered a defeat that leaves them needing to claim at least a point against Wolves at Stamford Bridge on Sunday to be certain a top-four finish. But Pulisic’s second-half flurry after replacing Willian on 59 minutes almost — almost — inspired his team to an improbable fightback that would have earned the point Chelsea needed without having to endure the stress of gaining it against Wolves.
The United States captain created a goal for Tammy Abraham on 61 minutes then missed a clear chance after being released by Reece James three minutes later. But when Pulisic scored from Callum Hudson-Odoi’s through-ball on 72 minutes, it was suddenly 4-3 to Liverpool and Chelsea were within touching distance of a remarkable result.
A crazy night at Anfield was sealed, however, on 84 minutes when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain made it 5-3 to Klopp’s team to ensure that their trophy lift would take place after another victory, and one that lifted them to 96 points ahead of the final game of the season at Newcastle on Sunday.
Had things been different 18 months ago, when Pulisic chose a move to Chelsea from Borussia Dortmund despite interest from Liverpool, he could have been cradling a Premier League winners’ medal at the end of his first full season in English football. But while the 21-year-old and his Chelsea teammates had left the building long before Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson hoisted the trophy, Pulisic had made his mark, both on this game and the season as a whole. And his performance at Anfield will have all but ensured that Pulisic starts Sunday’s decisive clash against Wolves.
“We needed a big result today, but luckily it’s still in our hands after tonight,” Pulisic said. “We go in next week and we win and we qualify for the Champions League and that’s the goal.”
While Chelsea still have business to complete — they are also in the FA Cup final and have yet to complete their round-of-16 Champions League tie against Bayern Munich, having lost the first leg 3-0 in February — Liverpool can now look ahead to defending their title next season.
Klopp has spoken this week of not needing to add to a squad that has dominated this season and, as they raced into a 3-0 lead with goals from Naby Keita, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Georginio Wijnaldum, the Liverpool manager’s confidence was justified.
Chelsea’s response, with Olivier Giroud and Abraham scoring either side of Roberto Firmino’s header, was a result of Liverpool easing their foot off the pedal. That didn’t cost them on this occasion, but the brief lapse should serve as a warning as to what may happen if the champions are prepared to sit back and watch as others attempt to close the gap this summer.
Manchester City, having overturned a two-year UEFA ban from European competition, will spend to boost Pep Guardiola’s squad, and Manchester United will also be active in the transfer market. Chelsea, having already signed Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech, have made their intentions clear, and they are close to adding Kai Havertz to Lampard’s squad.
So even as Liverpool were celebrating amid the champagne and glitter in front of the Kop, their rivals are already planning how to catch them.
Klopp is right to say that his team can go again and defend their title. The same squad that won the Champions League in 2019 has now won the Premier League, so spending is not always required. But Liverpool are now in a position of strength, and they must capitalise on that to stay ahead of the pack. As they say, if you stand still, you fall behind.
So as Klopp watched Henderson parade the Premier League trophy, the German will have been plotting for next season and the gaps he needs to plug to make Liverpool even better. That may mean nothing more than bolstering a squad to sharpen competition for places, but Liverpool can’t afford to stand still. Pulisic showed them precisely what can happen when you ease off.
Klopp is smart enough to heed the warning and make sure that the lesson is learned, but for now at least, Liverpool can party. Even Pulisic couldn’t dampen this one.