26 April 2014

Liverpool v Chelsea 04.27.14

9:05am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 Chelsea (a) 12.29.13
2-2 (h) 04.21.13
1-1 (a) 11.11.12
4-1 Liverpool (h) 05.08.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-2 Norwich (a); 3-2 City (h); 2-1 West Ham (a)
Chelsea: 0-0 Atletico (a); 1-2 Sunderland (h); 1-0 Swansea (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 30; Sturridge 20; Gerrard 13; Sterling 9; Skrtel 7; Coutinho 5; Henderson 4; Agger, Flanagan, Moses, Sakho 1
Chelsea: Hazard 14; Eto'o 9; Oscar 8; Schürrle 7; Lampard 6; Ba, Torres 4; Ivanovic, Willian 3; Salah, Terry 2; Cahill, Mikel, Ramires 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Flanagan
Allen Coutinho
Sturridge Suarez

Repent, sinners, for the end is near.

Three matches left, with Liverpool five points clear, starting with Jose Mourinho bringing his mercenaries to Anfield. It's not the final hurdle – there are two more, and the next is arguably as tough as this one – but, of course, with the finish line in sight, Mourinho's standing in the way.

Will Daniel Sturridge be fit to start against his former club?

If he is – and we truly hope he is – how does it affect the rest of the line-up and formation? One of Allen or Lucas would almost certainly make way. And would Liverpool revert to the 4-4-2 diamond or the 4-3-3?

That Liverpool went with the diamond formation against City two weeks ago seems telling. Rodgers had played 4-3-3 against Everton, Arsenal, and Tottenham at home, but changed it for City. And City presented similar problems as Chelsea will: a 4-2-3-1 system; mobile, fluid attackers in the line of three, all of whom want to come inside; width primarily from the fullbacks; a striker who'll come deep to try to hold up play and involve the midfield runners.

And Allen was better than Lucas the last time Liverpool played. In theory, Lucas is the more defensive option, the safer option, but Allen's been no slouch defensively, provides more in attack, and replicates more of the non-stop running that Liverpool desperately miss with Henderson absent. As much as it pains me, Lucas did not look good as one of the wider midfielders against Norwich, but he could still be quite useful as a defensive-minded substitution tomorrow. Rodgers might also start both Allen and Lucas, leaving Coutinho on the bench for more midfield solidity, but that seems quite unlikely.

If Sturridge is unavailable (or only fit enough for the bench), it'll be the same system, and most likely the same XI, as at Norwich last week. The only potential difference would be Agger for Sakho. Which I think should happen regardless of formation or the other 10 Liverpool players, but Rodgers does very much prefer a settled defense.

This week has mostly been about Mourinho's "mind games," prioritizing the Champions League supposedly at the expense of tomorrow's XI, again charged with misconduct by the FA for his post-match comments last weekend. I suspect it's less about the Champions League's importance and more about the fact that Chelsea are now rank outsiders for the title, exemplified by Mourinho's tirade after an unthinkable home loss against Sunderland, a tirade that'll probably cost him a five-figure fine.

The last time Chelsea rested players against Liverpool before a crucial Champions League tie was the last time Liverpool beat Chelsea: a 4-1 win at Anfield in May 2012. But this is a very different Chelsea, even if it's also a very different Liverpool.

Ramires is suspended after elbowing Larsson last week against Sunderland. (Incidentally, Ramires was also suspended for the reverse fixture; yes, he is "that sort of player.") Terry and Cech are definitely out through injury; Eto'o and Hazard – Chelsea's two top scorers – almost certainly are as well. Some of this "weakened" team will be by default.

Since putting six past Arsenal, Chelsea have struggled for goals in the league, at least comparatively. They scored three against Stoke, but were shut out at Crystal Palace, and scored just one against both Sunderland and Swansea. It's no coincidence that's mostly happened without Hazard, who hasn't featured since suffering a calf injury in the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinal against PSG. His last league appearance was as a substitute against Stoke, where he played a crucial role in the two Chelsea second-half goals which won them the match.

Lampard and John Obi Mikel are suspended for the second leg against Atletico; Matic and Salah are cup-tied. So it's probably safe to assume those four will be involved. No matter what Mourinho says, there seemingly have to be a few players who'll also feature on Wednesday. Chelsea have the players to fully rotate in midfield and attack, but there aren't a ton of alternatives in defense, especially at fullback.

My best guess at tomorrow's XI is Schwarzer; Ivanovic, Luiz, Cahill, Cole; Matic, Mikel; Salah, Lampard, Schürrle; Ba. Maybe Nathan Ake or Tomas Kalas plays in defense rather than Luiz or Cahill. Maybe even both, if Mourinho's actually being honest. Both of them can play at fullback as well – Kalas on the right, Ake on the left – but it's not their preferred position. Maybe van Ginkel, recently back from a long-term injury, starts rather than Mikel. Because Mikel. Maybe Oscar does, as he didn't start at Atletico.

Chelsea still have options. The above guess, or the possible permutations, clearly isn't Chelsea's strongest line-up, but it's still a very strong line-up. And Chelsea will remain Chelsea, Mourinho will remain Mourinho: defend strongly, then break quickly.

If they've any chance of winning the league, Chelsea have to win. A Liverpool win gives the Reds 83 points; Chelsea couldn't finish with more than 81. A draw isn't much better for Mourinho's side, leaving them five points behind Liverpool with only six left up for grabs.

But Liverpool need the points as well. A loss means that City can overtake Liverpool on goal difference even if Liverpool win their subsequent two fixtures, and would put Chelsea just two points behind Liverpool. A draw means Liverpool would have to win both subsequent fixtures to keep it from going to goal difference. And one of those fixtures is at Crystal Palace, which is no easy prospect.

Liverpool are inches away from ending their Premier League title drought. Inches. It is tangibly close. But there are no fingers on the trophy just yet. It's not as if Liverpool have been playing without pressure for the last 11 matches, the last 11 wins, but now the pressure's really on, pressure heavy enough to crumple steel or turn coal into diamonds.

So shine on, you crazy diamonds.


Anonymous said...

Nice write up Nate. As always. I too was thinking I would rather see DAgger start tomorrow. And after last week Rodgers may agree. Not that Sakho played badly by any means or didn't have a good game. He gave the ball away a few times in dangerous positions. And DAgger is positionally a wee bit smarter both offensively and defensively. I just feel a little more secure having Danny start in the back.

That Anfield crowd should be rocking for this one. Can't wait. Hope Sturridge gets a chance to reprise his dance. Mou will appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

For Chelski to win the league we would need to lose not only to Chelski but also one of the games to at the beach Newcastle and a safe Crystal Palace AND Chelski would need to win it's other two games against relegation fighting teams fighting for their lives AND Man City would need to drop points (Everton are fading). Those all happening together are highly unlikely and Mourinho will not take chances versus a tough 51-49 game against Athletico. I can see Mourinho playing a defensive side without Cahill and an excellent reserve side BUT we have to have a winning mentality. Also prefer Daniel Agger to Sakho. Fingers and toes crossed.