30 January 2017

Liverpool v Chelsea 01.31.17

3pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (a) 09.16.16
1-1 (h) 05.11.16
3-1 Liverpool (a) 10.31.15
1-1 (a) 05.10.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 Wolves (h); 0-1 Southampton (h); 2-3 Swansea (h)
Chelsea: 4-0 Brentford (h); 2-0 Hull (h); 3-0 Leicester (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 9; Firmino 8; Lallana 7; Milner 6; Coutinho 5; Origi 4; Can 3; Lovren, Sturridge, Wijnaldum 2; Henderson, Matip 1
Chelsea: Costa 15; Hazard 9; Pedro, Willian 5; Alonso, Cahill, Moses 3; Batshuayi, Fabregas, Kante 1

Referee: Mark Clattenburg

Guess at a line-up:
Alexander-Arnold Matip Lovren Milner
Wijnaldum Henderson Can
Lallana Firmino Coutinho

It's obviously not a great time to host the league leaders. Liverpool are in disarray. Liverpool have one win in 2017, at League Two Plymouth Argyle with a second-string side. Liverpool have lost their last three matches, all at Anfield – the first time that's happened in more than four years. Liverpool haven't lost four in a row at Anfield since 1923, the only time that's happened in Liverpool's history.

Or is it?

No, no it's probably not. At least January will finally be over.

We can hope this fixture inspires Liverpool out of this current funk. And there is precedent for such. Liverpool were mediocre in Klopp's first few matches, having drawn five of their last six, before traveling to Chelsea and comprehensively winning 3-1. There were a couple of games at Anfield in 2009-10 – 2-0 wins over United and Tottenham – to arrest multiple-match slides which came before. And Liverpool do have an excellent recent record against Chelsea. Liverpool do have an excellent recent record against the current top six.

That Sadio Mané won't return to Merseyside until tonight probably means tomorrow's too soon to start. I hope he's available, for obvious reasons, and Klopp didn't rule it out. Liverpool have desperately missed him, for his qualities and how the rest of the team takes shape around him. More specifically, it'd allow Lallana to play in midfield – another crucial piece of the puzzle – with Wijnaldum the most likely to make way.

At least Adam Lallana's fit again, even if he's likely to play in the front three – don't expect Sturridge or Origi to start unless there are issues with either Wijnaldum or Can besides their rocky form. But Nat Clyne isn't, absent from training in the last few days, which means Alexander-Arnold. Against Eden Hazard. *gulp, tugs collar*

But, of course, it's not as if Eden Hazard is Chelsea's only threat. Chelsea are nothing but threats. Hell, even Victor Moses has become a threat.

Chelsea are eight points ahead of second, and ten ahead of Liverpool. They've won 14 of their last 15 matches in all competitions, and 16 of their last 17 in the league. They've kept clean sheets in 13 of those 17 matches, allowing just six goals, and haven't conceded in their last three games in all competitions.

They're near perfectly balanced between attack and defense, the stingiest side in the league but with Costa, Hazard, Pedro, and Willian all adding goals. Once this Chelsea gets a lead, that's almost certainly it. They won't be as deep as other opponents Liverpool have faced during this awful month, but they congest the middle just as effectively due to both system and personnel. They smother, steal, and transition quickly – capable of doing in through the middle with to Costa, Hazard, and Pedro/Willian's tricks, or up the flanks with Moses and Alonso's pace.

So, yeah, they're good. Liverpool have been very good at times this season as well. But unlike Liverpool, Chelsea are playing good too.

Tomorrow's XI seems fairly easy to predict. It will be what it's been. Courtois; Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill; Moses, Matic, Kante, Alonso; Pedro, Costa, Hazard. The only potential alteration is Willian rather than Pedro. Chelsea have no injuries because Chelsea not having any injuries is a big reason why they're first. As with Leicester last season, as with Chelsea the season before.

Chelsea's lone league loss since September is the template. Tottenham's 2-0 home win at the beginning of the month: press, strangle, and restrict Chelsea, both goals coming when Tottenham won the ball in the middle third, stretched the defense with width and pace, and crossed for Dele Alli headers.

Or, in a similar vein, it will take a performance like Liverpool's against Manchester City before this slide started: get the goal (and ideally more!) – with Wijnaldum's not dissimilar from Alli's against Chelsea – then defend like demons. Ideally more than one goal. Ideally better in attack, probably needing to take more than five shots, and especially needing to be better when there are opportunities to counter.

Which makes Liverpool's 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge a template as well. Liverpool started well despite missing a crucial player (Firmino) and scored twice in the first half, enough to see out the win, under pressure after Diego Costa pulled one back but no closer. But that performance took luck as well as skill, especially for Liverpool's goals: Chelsea's complete set play breakdown (which has not happened often since then) for Lovren's opener, then a unlikely bazooka from distance by Henderson.

Liverpool have still lost just one of 14 league matches against the current top six, 0-1 against Manchester United last season. This season, they've beaten Arsenal and Chelsea away and City at home, drawn at Tottenham and against United.

Liverpool have been very good at times this season. Being good again is long, long overdue, and it will happens sooner than later with the schedule easing and Mané returning. But they'll need to be at their best to get something from tomorrow's match.

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