With Jose Mourinho saying after the Champions League semi-final first leg against Atletico Madrid on Tuesday night that he would seek permission from the club’s owner, Roman Abramovich, to pick a weakened team – an act of startling gracelessness even by his standards, threatening to cheapen what should be one of the high points of the English season to make a personal point about the conspiracy he imagines surrounding him – it’s difficult to predict his line-up.
However, given Frank Lampard and Mikel John Obi will be suspended from the second leg and Nemanja Matic and Mohamed Salah are cup-tied, it’s safe to assume they will play. Petr Cech and John Terry are out, Eden Hazard should be fit enough to return but Samuel Eto’o is a major doubt.
Liverpool will be without Jordan Henderson, serving the second game of the three-game ban for the red card he picked up against Manchester City, but Daniel Sturridge is likely to return after a hamstring strain.
Liverpool have scored 10 goals in the first five minutes of matches, in the first 15 minutes of 15 matches and in 25 successive first halves. They’ve scored first in 27 league matches this season and gone on to win 23 of those.
Their game plan is to hit opponents quickly, surge into the lead and then use the extreme pace of Luis Suarez, Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge and the long-passing ability of Steven Gerrard to pick sides off on the counter attack. Chelsea, presumably, will sit deep in that opening 20-25 minutes and look to hit Liverpool on the counter, using the pace of whichever of Willian, Hazard, Salah, Andre Schurrle and Oscar play. Really, though, the early stages will be about survival.
CHELSEA RECORD AGAINST TOP SIDES
Mourinho is a master at setting his team up to stop others playing. Of 13 games against the other seven sides in the top eight this season, Chelsea have won nine, drawn three and lost only once – away to Everton. Their struggles have come against those lower down the league, as they have repeatedly failed to break down sides who have packed men behind the ball.
Although Liverpool’s natural outlook is attacking, looking to win the ball back and sweep forward at pace, Chelsea’s problem is that their opponents don’t need to win: a draw would keep them comfortably clear at the top of the table, so once their initial surge is over, there’s no reason for Liverpool to take risks.
Although it’s the trio of forwards who have taken the majority of the headlines this season, Liverpool have also been extremely potent from set-plays, with Martin Skrtel scoring seven goals – one of them against Chelsea in the league game at Stamford Bridge. They’ve scored 23 times from set-plays this season: 24% of all their league goals.
Chelsea, meanwhile, have looked vulnerable to set-plays: not including penalties, 31% of the goals they’ve conceded this season have come from set-pieces. Admittedly, their defending has improved significantly since the turn of the year, but Sunderland were a persistent threat from corners last Saturday, their opening goal coming from the relatively simply ploy of packing the back post and dragging the ball to the edge of the box for Marcos Alonso.
One of the strengths of this Liverpool side has been its flexibility, the fact that Sterling can play on either flank or through the centre and that the other two forwards are able to adjust to accommodate that. At Stamford Bridge, Sturridge was unavailable, and Liverpool played a 4-3-3, with Sterling on one flank and Philippe Coutinho on the other.
It seems likely this tie that Sterling will play through the middle, wither behind a front two if Sturridge is available or, as he did against Norwich, as a second striker with Coutinho taking his place at the top of the diamond.
That changes the dynamic, creating a problem not commonly faced in English football: Chelsea’s two holding midfielders would have to protect the centre while the central defenders seek to prevent Liverpool’s forwards exploiting the channels between the centre-backs and the defenders, a difficulty exacerbated with Terry’s injury forcing Chelsea to field an unfamiliar centre-back pairing of Cahill and either Branislav Ivanovic or David Luiz.
VERDICT / BEST BETS
Liverpool are 1.75 to win, but given how quickly they start, the 2.25 on them to be leading at half-time looks better value.
It’s 2.55 for them to lead at half-time and win the game or a tempting 14.00 for Liverpool to lead at half-time and Chelsea to come back to draw – although Liverpool have only not won four times when they’ve scored first this season, it very nearly happened in recent weeks against Sunderland, Manchester City and Norwich.
Skrtel at 10.00 to score at any time also looks appealing.