After Brendan Rodgers’s controversial team selection against Real Madrid on Tuesday night, he should have almost a full squad of fresh, fully fit players available. He may even have Daniel Sturridge back, although it’s doubtful if he could last a full game even if he is fully fit.
The question really is whether Tuesday’s line-up was intended to rest key players ahead of this fixture, or whether Rodgers was reminding players he felt had underperformed – most notably against Newcastle United last Saturday – that they are not indispensible. Chelsea’s only notable injury absentee is Loic Remy, although with Diego Costa’s hamstrings seemingly back in working order, that’s of concern only in terms of options from the bench.
It was in this fixture last season, of course, that Liverpool’s title challenge was ended. A draw would have been enough to leave them in control of the table, but they attacked, allowed themselves to be goaded by Chelsea’s timewasting, and were undone by Steven Gerrard’s infamous slip allowing Demba Ba in to score before Willian added a very late second on the break.
Sturridge didn’t start that game, Rodgers opting for a 4-3-2-1 with Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho behind Luis Suarez and a three-man midfield of Gerrard, Joe Allen and Lucas Leiva (Jordan Henderson being suspended). It seems likely he may go for something similar again, trying to use the three-man midfield to shield the back four.
Liverpool have been a shambles facing set-plays this season.
Aston Villa, West Ham, Middlesbrough, Basel and Queens Park Rangers have all capitalised and, such is the height in this Chelsea team that that seems a likely source of goals for them too. Nemanja Matic poked in a John Terry flick to salvage a draw away to Maribor in the Champions League on Wednesday.
They’ve also scored three times this season from corners in the Premier League, with Terry, Diego Costa, Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic all posing a threat.
Last season, Chelsea sat off Liverpool and essentially waited for them to make a mistake, but they may be a little more proactive this season. There’s no need for Chelsea to force the pace, of course – they’re comfortably clear at the top of the table and a draw, in context, would be a reasonable result – but they have generally been more proactive this season than last. And the sense must be that Liverpool are there for the taking, having won just one of their last five in all competitions. There’s not even any great reason to fear Liverpool on the break anymore, given that they may be down to only one genuinely rapid player.
Chelsea will probably play a little deeper than they have for much of this season, but with Oscar and Cesc Fabregas in such form, they may do a little more probing rather than simply waiting for an error. Then again, after two iffy performances in their last two games, they may go back to basics.
Marouane Fellaini showed how restricting Fabregas can restrict Chelsea and it may be that other sides learn the lesson of Manchester United’s performance against the league leaders and look to pressure the former Barcelona midfielder. It’s debatable, though, whether Liverpool have anybody who can do that, and it may be that their best bet is to try to force Fabregas to defend, helping Matic deal with the twin threat of Coutinho and Sterling.
Chelsea’s defending has been the one concern this season: they’ve kept only three clean sheets in 10 games and Liverpool may have the spark to exploit that. The question then is whether they have the discipline to keep Chelsea out.
Liverpool tend to play fairly narrow under Rodgers, much of the width coming from their full-backs (all of whom are rather better going forward than they are defensively). That means two things for Chelsea’s wide men, presumably Willian and Eden Hazard: they will have defensive work to do, but they should also have space to attack and it may be that their surges prove more important in this game rather than Fabregas’s creativity.
Although Liverpool are temptingly long at 3.55, they’re just too flaky at the moment to back. Chelsea at 2.10 feels a little short, so given how often they’ve scored early this season, the way to go may be backing them to be leading at half-time and full-time at 3.30.
Given Liverpool’s weakness at set-plays, there may be some value in backing John Terry and/or Gary Cahill to score at any time at 12.00, and with Liverpool susceptible to breaks, Willian to repeat last season’s trick by scoring the last goal at 13.00 is also intriguing.
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