11am ET, live in the US on FSC
Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (a) 11.11.12
4-1 Liverpool (h) 05.08.12
1-2 Chelsea (n; FA Cup) 05.05.12
2-0 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 11.29.11
Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Reading (a); 0-0 West Ham (h); 2-1 Villa (a)
Chelsea: 3-0 Fulham (a); 1-2 City (a); 2-3 Rubin Kazan (a)
Liverpool: Suarez 22; Gerrard 9; Sturridge 4; Downing, Henderson 3; Agger, Coutinho, Enrique, Skrtel, Sterling 2; Cole, Johnson, Şahin 1
Chelsea: Lampard 12; Mata 10; Hazard 8; Torres 7; Ivanovic 5; Ramires, Terry 4; Ba, Cahill, Luiz 2; Cole, Marin, Moses, Oscar, Sturridge 1
Referee: Kevin Friend
Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Carragher Agger Enrique
Downing Coutinho Henderson
I am not looking forward to this.
I am not looking forward to Rafa Benitez's return to Anfield at the same time that Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool is painfully stuttering its way to the end of the season, the first time Liverpool have hosted a former manager since Kenny Dalglish came with Newcastle in January 1998. (Edit: It has since been pointed out to me that Roy Hodgson actually managed Liverpool, and then returned with West Brom. We regret the error, but still maintain he doesn't count.) It's gonna be awkward and it's gonna be weird.
I am not looking forward to a Liverpool that hasn't scored in 210 minutes of football facing a side that's given up only 33 league goals all season. Only Manchester City has allowed fewer.
I am not looking forward to facing a side that's also scored the second-most goals in the league this season, behind only Manchester United. And having struggled against the likes of Benteke, Lukaku, etc., I am not looking forward to Liverpool having to defend a side that's scored the most headed goals in the league.
Are there any consolations?
Well, despite the disappointments in the last two matches, Liverpool are a much better side than they were the last time they faced Chelsea. And Liverpool matched Chelsea almost step for step in the reverse fixture in November, rightfully earning a point at Stamford Bridge, rarely looking like conceding aside from the set play that John Terry scored from.
Rodgers' Liverpool lined up in a 3-5-1-1 at Stamford Bridge five months ago. I'd be very, very surprised if that were the case tomorrow. Liverpool's personnel will also be very different; five of the 11 starters in November either assuredly or probably won't play – Allen, Jones, Şahin, Sterling, and Wisdom.
As usual, it's a case of Sturridge or Henderson; I'd be surprised if Downing were left out so Sturridge could start on the right again, although it's definitely a possibility. I am a firm believer in playing players against their former club, but Henderson seems more likely to start than the ex-Chelsea striker. And if that's the case, it's a question of who plays on the left and who plays as the #10. Unlike against Reading, Henderson makes more sense centrally, able to press Mikel/Lampard/Ramires when Chelsea are in possession, with Coutinho given more freedom on the left because of Chelsea's wingers' frequent inability to track back.
It's sort of a Goldilocks solution. Playing two strikers appears to leave Liverpool too open against dangerous opposition, especially given Chelsea's preferred formation, while Coutinho's ability to unlock Chelsea's defense as the attacking midfielder would be hampered by Mikel's close attention.
Despite the initial troubles, mostly caused by Chelsea fans' stubborn idiocy, Benitez's Chelsea have become a very Benitez side.
The best comparison, other than to Benitez's former sides, is Pochettino's Southampton. A team that beat Liverpool 3-1, albeit on its own ground. They were well-organized; disciplined; fluid, flexible, and fast in attack; and put frequent pressure on the ball when out of possession. Chelsea will play a similar style, but with more talented players.
Rafa's lineups have never been the easiest to predict, made harder by the massive amount of matches Chelsea have played in the last few weeks, but chances are it looks something like: Cech; Azpilicueta and Bertrand at fullback; two from Ivanovic, Luiz, and Terry at center-back; two from Lampard, Mikel, and Ramires in midfield; Hazard, Mata, and either Oscar and Moses in the attacking line of three; and either Torres or Ba up front. Ashley Cole, Marin, and Cahill are all doubtful through injury, while Romeu remains out for the season.
This game would have made me much less nervous last season. Under Dalglish, Liverpool struggled against lesser quality opposition, against the West Hams and Readings (yes, I know neither were in the division but bear with me), yet almost always found form against the sides ahead of them in the table. This season, the win over Tottenham at Anfield remains Liverpool's only victory against one of the 1st-6th placed sides: two losses to United, two draws against City, a loss and draw against Arsenal, a win and loss against Tottenham, and draws at Everton and Chelsea. Liverpool played to its full potential in two, maybe three, of those matches, while the side had moments in one or two others.
Liverpool will need to play to its full potential to take all three points tomorrow, to continue to be defensively solid, but to also find the goal-scoring form which has eluded them in the last two matches.