15 September 2016

Liverpool at Chelsea 09.16.16

3:00pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (h) 05.11.16
3-1 Liverpool (a) 10.31.15
1-1 (a) 05.10.15
0-1 Chelsea (a; League Cup) 01.27.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-1 Leicester (h); 1-1 Tottenham (a); 5-0 Burton Albion (a)
Chelsea: 2-2 Swansea (a); 3-0 Burnley (h); 3-2 Bristol Rovers (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Coutinho, Firmino, Lallana, Mané 2; Milner 1
Chelsea: Costa 4; Hazard 2; Batshuayi, Moses, Willian 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Matip Lovren Milner
Lallana Henderson Wijnaldum
Mané Firmino Coutinho

Liverpool's relaxing start to the season continues apace. This will be the third trip to London, against yet another of the league's best sides, in addition to the home win over last season's champions and one more match that shall not be mentioned. And we're barely more than a month in. Easing them into the campaign.

With Lovren available and Emre Can back in training but not fit to start, there seems only one line-up question: Coutinho or Sturridge? Liverpool's seemingly preferred counter-attacking formula, with Firmino as the central striker, or the sheer force of nature we saw last Saturday?

It may be worth mentioning that last season's trip to Stamford Bridge saw the first time Firmino lined up as a false nine under Klopp, with Liverpool finishing 3-1 winners. It was the first sign of Liverpool as a counter-attacking power, one which has dramatically improved over the last 11 months. It was Liverpool's only win against Chelsea in the last 10 meetings, since the start of Brendan Rodgers' tenure, with five draws and four losses in the other league and cup meetings.

But that was a different Liverpool – one which didn't actually win the match until Benteke came on – against a very, very different Chelsea. It was a Liverpool side that didn't look anywhere near as savage as they did last Saturday.

That Coutinho came on against Leicester and immediately blasted two nothing shots from nowhere which were swiftly blocked doesn't seem to help his case. But then you remember what he did, what that front three did, at Arsenal on opening day. You remember how that's the front three which had been preferred until last Saturday, when international excursions kept Coutinho on the bench, and has been especially preferred when Liverpool necessarily play an even more counter-attacking style. You remember that Sturridge is much more likely to make an impact off the bench than Coutinho is.

But then you remember how well Sturridge, Mané, and Firmino linked up against Leicester.

So the short answer is "I've no clue." I'm well aware how helpful this is. That's what's I'm here for. The other eight places pick themselves, except for a possible debate over whether Karius should come in for Mignolet now that he's fit. That'll eventually happen, but Stamford Bridge isn't where I'd want to make my first start and Mignolet was actually surprisingly competent against Leicester last week.

Meanwhile, Chelsea have been about as impressive as an attacking force. They haven't hit Liverpool's heights – those 20-30 minute spells against Arsenal and Leicester – but they've been more consistent. They've the same number of goals scored as Liverpool, and they've scored at least twice in all five matches. Diego Costa has been 1000% Diego Costa, already the league's joint-top scorer and somehow staying on the pitch in each match despite the perpetual possibility of a red card. Eden Hazard's back after not playing at all last season (that wasn't Eden Hazard; the real Eden Hazard went on a gap year and nothing will convince me otherwise).

But, also like Liverpool, there's room for the opposition. Chelsea have kept just one clean sheet in those five matches. Against the only side that Liverpool have lost to, the only side that Liverpool failed to score against. It's a funny game, this.

And Chelsea's defense won't be helped by its one absentee: John Terry out for a week after suffering an ankle injury at Swansea. Enter David Luiz, for both better and worse, for both Chelsea and Liverpool. Capable of the sublime and insane in a matter of seconds. Otherwise, Chelsea's XI is even easier to predict than Liverpool's. It's been the same in nearly every match: Courtois; Ivanovic, Cahill, Luiz, Azpilicueta; Oscar, Kante, Matic; Willian, Costa, Hazard. Fabregas, Batshuayi, Moses, and Pedro will be the options off the bench.

And, despite all the knowledgable pundits' very informed predictions, we haven't seen a single hint of Conte's "preferred" 3-5-2. Chelsea's formation is Liverpool's formation: a malleable, fluid 4-3-3; solid but not especially creative or quick fullbacks, a deeper midfielder behind two linking runners, two versatile, dribbling "wingers" flanking a central striker. And that central striker is in blistering, maddening form.

That these sides met less than two months ago still makes me angry. Yes, yes, you can't learn much from preseason, but that preseason match went how we fear tomorrow could go. Neither side especially impressive, especially in attack, cancelling each other out. Incredibly contentious and ill-played, with five yellow cards for Liverpool and a yellow and red for Chelsea. And a Liverpool loss thanks to a set play header. It's a script we'd seen before. Both sides will be stronger and more fully formed than they were in July on a hot California night, but that was still a match and a result that seems eminently possible.

Whether it's Mané-Firmino-Coutinho (which, incidentally, was also Liverpool's attack in that "friendly") or Mané-Sturridge-Firmino, it'll be up to Liverpool to make sure tomorrow's match goes differently, by playing Liverpool's style of football. Don't do anything dumb at the back, then blitz them at the other end.

It's a simple game, this.

1 comment :

jason scott said...

Why the hell are they playing on a friday anyway?