Daniel Sturridge returned to full training for Liverpool on Sunday after his calf and thigh injuries, but it seems unlikely Brendan Rodgers will risk him against Chelsea in the Capital One Cup semi-final. Kolo Toure is at the Cup of Nations, but otherwise, Liverpool should be at pretty much full strength. Chelsea are without Mikel John Obi, who has a head injury, while Andre Schurrle has a back problem, but with Jose Mourinho fuming after Saturday’s FA Cup defeat to Bradford, it’s a fairly safe bet that this will be near enough a first team. “We are one victory from the final, and it is important we reach Wembley,” said Mourinho. “The FA Cup is finished for us. It’s a knockout game, a second leg of a semi-final, live or die.”
There have been two meetings since the infamous league game at Anfield last season when Steven Gerrard’s slip gave Chelsea the win that effectively halted Liverpool’s charge to the title. In the league at Anfield, Chelsea won 2-1 but such was their dominance of midfield that it was a victory that was far more comfortable than the scoreline suggested. Last week’s Capital One Cup semi-final first leg, though, was a different matter. Chelsea had an element of control in the first half, although the Eden Hazard penalty with which they took the lead was their first chance of the game.
The second half, as Steven Gerrard began to impose himself, was far less structured and in the to-and-fro, a Liverpool victory began to look plausible. The substitution of Gerrard for Adam Lallana, though, restored a sense of calm to the game and that removed from Liverpool much of their menace. “I was frustrated because Liverpool gave a lot of space,” said Mourinho after the first leg. “They play with three defenders, the full-backs are wide, and we could have hurt them much more than we did there. Normally our midfield is full of quality, but we lost so many passes. I saw enough space to score more goals in that game.”
CHELSEA AGAINST RUNNERS
It was at the beginning of December that Chelsea’s aura of invincibility was burst. As Harry Kane ran at them, it became apparent that this back four, having seemed to secure, struggled against direct runners and, more than that, that Nemanja Matic alone at the back of midfield didn’t quite have the mobility to offer protection. Since then, that flaw has continued to be exposed - as it was, devastatingly, by Raheem Sterling in last week’s first leg. The vulnerability means that almost whatever happens in the game, Liverpool will always have a chance.
Liverpool lost their first game after adopting the 3-4-2-1, away to Manchester United, but they are unbeaten since and, whatever scepticism remains about Brendan Rodgers, he deserved credit for having devised a system that gets the best out of his squad. Sterling, in particularly, has thrived, using his role as a false nine to find space, turn and run at opponents. The return of Lucas Leiva in midfield has added a measure of stability – and raised the question of why he spent so long on the sidelines – while Jordan Henderson and Lazar Markovic have excelled at wingback. The battle between Henderson (or Markovic if Alberto Moreno is again used on the left) on the Liverpool right and Hazard on the Chelsea left is likely to be key.
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THE ABSENCE OF MIKEL
One of the problems this new Liverpool shape causes opponents is the presence of two creative players in central areas. Given Chelsea tend to play only one holding midfielder that causes them particular issues – which in part explains why Mikel played in the first leg. Still, with Gerrard and Philippe Coutinho drifting wide, the effect was to create space for Sterling, culminating in his run on goal and equaliser. Without Mikel, Chelsea need to find a way of combatting that double threat form an unusual position. The corollary is that Liverpool, with wing-backs, could be overmanned wide, particularly if Branislav Ivanovic can impose himself on the Chelsea right.
Even a fortnight ago, this would have felt like a simple Chelsea win, but Liverpool are playing their best football of the season while Chelsea seems constantly to be battling with themselves. In that regard, and particularly given the possibility of Sterling running at the Chelsea back four, the 5.5 on Liverpool to win is surely too long although I’d be tempering them by backing them +1 on the Asian line at 1.76. It’s not the bravest bet, but this is a game enmeshed in contradictory indicators.
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