Cesar Azpilicueta has told Chelsea to step up in order to mount a serious title challenge against runaway Premier League leaders Manchester City.
The Blues battled back for a highly creditable 2-2 draw with Liverpool at Stamford Bridge on Sunday in an engrossing advert for England’s top-flight product.
Chelsea’s players delivered an important result in the absence of dropped striker Romelu Lukaku, but still slipped 10 points behind defending champions City.
But captain Azpilicueta admitted Chelsea’s grafting point against Liverpool still represented a better result for Pep Guardiola’s pacesetters.
Asked if City were the bigger winners in the wake of their closest chasers drawing, Azpilicueta replied: “Of course. They are the top. It’s football.
“They’ve been setting the standards in the Premier League high.
“It was up to us to close the gap at the beginning of the season. We need to raise our level.”
Mateo Kovacic’s fine volley and Christian Pulisic’s smart finish hauled Chelsea back after Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah had wrestled the Reds a commanding position.
Chelsea were without club-record signing Lukaku after boss Thomas Tuchel dropped the £98million summer recruit, as the fallout over his controversial interview continues.
Tuchel was due to meet Lukaku on Monday to thrash out a way forward after the Belgium hitman told Sky Sport Italy he was unhappy at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea players rallied for a result to boost their manager’s strong stance, with Lukaku’s team-mates understood to have been as surprised by the striker’s interview as Tuchel.
Azpilicueta believes Chelsea must still be proud of their fightback even despite frustrations with the overall league picture.
“We were 2-0 down, we fought to come back; we wanted more but we never lost the trust,” Azpilicueta told Chelsea’s official club website.
“We felt the second half we could push for the third goal.
“We had to fight our way back, we left everything on the pitch.”
Liverpool were left to count the cost of not just conceding a winning position but also the latest Covid-19 concerns.
Manager Jurgen Klopp and senior players Alisson Becker, Joel Matip and Roberto Firmino missed the Stamford Bridge trip due to suspected positive coronavirus tests.
The Reds will now also see Naby Keita, Salah and Mane head off to the Africa Cup of Nations, but assistant manager Pep Lijnders insisted Liverpool have no worries over their squad situation.
Instead Lijnders revealed he told Liverpool’s African stars to light up the competition and do everything they can to lift the prestigious trophy.
“I’ve spoken to Naby, Mo and Sadio, and told them that they should try to win the AFCON, because it’s a prize to catch, the careers are never long and they deserve to fight for each prize,” said Lijnders.
“It’s a tournament with such passion and such culture.
“They are African legends, legends for me already; but if they win they will become even more legendary.
“We also have fight in the boys we have, and hopefully we have a few more boys coming back.”