17 August 2007

Liverpool v Chelsea 08.19.07

11am EST, live in the US on FSC.

Last 4 head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (h; CL) 05.01.07
0-1 Chelsea (a; CL) 04.25.07
2-0 Liverpool (h) 01.20.07
0-1 Chelsea (a) 09.27.06

Last matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Toulouse (a); 2-1 Villa (a)
Chelsea: 2-1 Reading (a); 3-2 Brum (h)

Referee: Rob Styles

Guess at a squad:
Finnan Carragher Agger Riise
Pennant Gerrard Mascherano Benayoun
Torres Kuyt

So the big news going into Sunday is the injury suffered by Gerrard against Toulouse. Evidently, he’s got a hairline fracture in his toe. It shouldn’t preclude him playing against Chelsea, but it’s something to keep an eye on. He may struggle, he may not be as dynamic, and if all goes according to plan and Liverpool’s doing well, he may be subbed out as early as possible. Although I do find it fairly funny that Rafa’s willing to risk him here, so long as he doesn’t play for England over the international break.

What the midfield will look like will mainly come down to whether or not Gerrard stays in the center. I’m inclined to think he will. Pennant’s played well against Chelsea, enjoys going up against Ashley Cole, scored his lone goal of last season in the match at Anfield, and was rested against Toulouse. But Rafa may use Gerrard on the right in an attempt keep Liverpool more defensively sound in midfield.

If Gerrard’s on the right, it will probably be Mascherano and Alonso in the center, and it’s hard to argue leaving either of them out. But I reckon only one of the two will play. Alonso’s composure and ability to spray passes around the field versus Mascherano’s defensive awareness and engine. I don’t know if Essien’s fit to play, but even if he doesn’t, I think the edge has got to go to Mascherano, who will be better able to keep Chelsea from doing damage through the middle.

Benitez rarely uses two out and out wingers. But I’m still choosing that line-up here. In the past, if Riise’s started on the left, Pennant’s played on the right, and last season, when Gerrard played on the right, Garcia was on the left if healthy. But if Liverpool really are going to be more of an attacking team, which is needed at home against a Chelsea team that’s struggled defensively over the past two games, I think two out and out wingers are needed.

I can’t see Arbeloa starting over Riise again. Riise’s scored some lovely goals against Chelsea, and always seems to give them problems. But in the same vein as picking Pennant, I’m hoping that Liverpool will have a more dangerous attacker like Benayoun or Babel on the left flank with Riise in defense, as Liverpool’s at home and Chelsea’s not been the strongest in defense.

Admittedly, Babel was better as a sub than when he started against Toulouse, but that may be where Benayoun comes in. We saw both he and Pennant switch flanks at will during preseason, even though both prefer to play on the right. Chelsea has consistently had problems at right back – it’s why Alves’ name has been mooted so often during the transfer window (as an aside, isn’t it fun negotiating with Del Nido?). Villa’s weak spot was also at right back, but Riise was rarely able to beat Craig Gardner and get a cross in. Benayoun and/or Pennant (depending which is on the left at that time, as I’d imagine they’d switch flanks at will) should both be able to beat their man and get to the byline to put a ball into the box.

And again, I’m guessing we’ll see Torres and Kuyt start up top. I do believe they’ll end up being the preferred pairing, but the Toulouse game did throw some doubt in my mind, especially when Voronin was subbed out. Every time Voronin’s played he’s earned plaudits, and that he was subbed out made me wonder if Benitez had an eye to using him on Sunday. But I do believe that Torres will play (it’s awfully hard to leave a £20m+ striker on the bench against Chelsea), and I doubt Benitez would use two new strikers in a game like this.

Playing Chelsea has turned into quite the rivalry, and Liverpool’s started to even out the gap between the teams. Liverpool’s won the last two meetings against Chelsea at home, including the first league win over Mourinho in January last season. The only differences between this proposed line-up and the one that beat Chelsea in the CL semi-finals is Torres in for Crouch and Benayoun in for Zenden, both of which are unquestionable upgrades.

Despite Chelsea’s defensive liabilities, they’ve started the season well: 6 points out of the two games, despite the injuries they’ve suffered. Playing Chelsea is never, ever a walk in the park. But Liverpool’s got the talent to take advantage, and there could be worse times to play Chelsea. It won’t hurt that this is Liverpool’s home opener, and the boys should be raring to go. Although it’s a league game in August, it still feels like a late-season six-pointer, and the game will go a long way in demonstrating how good Liverpool can be this season. While a game in August is never the end of the world, the morale boost from a win here would be immeasurable.

Roll on Liverpool.

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