The injury issues are receding for Chelsea. Although Diego Costa is still out, Loic Remy should be fit again and may replace Didier Drogba at centre-forward. Oscar has a muscle injury that has forced him to withdraw from Brazil’s Copa America squad, while Ramires is almost certainly out after suffering illness shortly before kick-off in the win over Crystal Palace that sealed the Premier League title last week.
Liverpool, meanwhile, will be without Daniel Sturridge with his long-standing hip injury, while Mario Balotelli has a foot problem and Mamadou Sakho is almost certainly out with the hamstring injury he sustained in the FA Cup win over Blackburn.
Chelsea may not be hitting the heights of the autumn, but they’ve dropped only eight points since the defeat to Tottenham on New Year’s Day, a run of 15 games in which they’ve conceded only eight goals. Liverpool, meanwhile, are in the final part of a three-act season: they were inconsistent in the first, exceptional in the second and now seem to have sunk back into mediocrity – a run of three defeats in six league games and an FA Cup semi-final defeat since their 13-game unbeaten run came to an end.
Chelsea were relatively comfortable 2-1 winners despite falling behind to a deflected Emre Can shot at Anfield in November, but the two legs of the Capital One Cup were both gripping, hard-fought games, with Chelsea eventually prevailing in injury-time at Stamford Bridge. There may be some bad blood lingering from that game; it was for his stamp on Can in that game that Diego Costa was banned.
Whether because of personnel issues or a sense that the formation has been worked out, Liverpool have abandoned the 3-4-2-1 with which they had such success in the middle phases of the season, preferring a back four for each of their last four league matches. A 4-1-4-1 or 4-2-3-1 seems likeliest as Brendan Rodgers retrenches to something less adventurous.
There must be a temptation, though, given how well the 3-4-2-1 fared in those Capital One Cup semi-finals to revert to that and try to unleash Raheem Sterling against the centre of Chelsea’s defence. It’s hard to imagine Rickie Lambert doing much damage against John Terry and Gary Cahill, but if Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana can force Chelsea’s holding midfielders to split, Sterling could perhaps drop deep into the space they create and get a run at Terry and Cahill. The only time Chelsea have looked remotely vulnerable this season has been when pace has been directed at that central pair.
THE GERRARD FACTOR
Poor Steven Gerrard. His has been a career that has included ridiculous, barely credible highs: the goal for England in Munich in 2001, the 2005 Champions League final, the 2006 FA Cup final. It’s hard to believe there’s been a player in the last 50 years who has won so many games single-handed and has been rewarded so scantly in terms of medals. And yet he will be haunted forever by his slip against Chelsea last season, an error, an accident, that effectively cost his side the title.
This season has been a long exercise in staying slightly too long, culminating in a poor performance in the semi-final of an FA Cup that was supposed to offer final validation. If he can impose himself against what has probably been the best midfield in the country it might provide at least some comfort, but the chances are he will be overpowered again.
With Oscar and Ramires both likely to be out, Mourinho seems to have two choices. He can play Cesc Fabregas deep alongside Nemanja Matic and use Juan Cuadrado on the right with Willian in a central role, or he can use Fabregas behind his centre-forward with Kurt Zouma or Mikel John Obi alongside Matic. Given Cuadrado’s indifferent form since joining form Fiorentina, the latter seems more likely.
Perhaps Chelsea, with the title won, will let their guard down. It’s true that in 2005-6, when they last won the league under Jose Mourinho, they lost their final two games, 1-0 against both Blackburn and Newcastle. Then too, they had no cup competitions left – although whether they’re distractions or offer incentives to players desperate to play in finals is debatable. Perhaps the upcoming World Cup played collectively on players’ minds.
Even with nothing left to play for, though, it’s hard to believe Chelsea are better than evens to beat a Liverpool team that has looked at least as weary as it does. After a couple of weeks of tough decisions, this one seems relatively simple: back Chelsea to win at 2.05.