Rewind three weeks and you’ll find the prevailing mood amongst the supporters of our club was one of consummate indignation; despite having witnessed the best of Andre Schurrle in a Chelsea shirt so far, we couldn’t help falling to our third defeat of the season at Stoke City, in all too dismally familiar fashion. Just as against Everton and Newcastle, we failed to capitalise on a dominant, chance-filled, first half, this time courtesy of some very bad finishing from Ramires and a game that could and should have been ended before the interval, was taken from us.
The result was unforgivable, but given what’s transpired since that performance, I’m making the bold prediction that come the end of the season, we’ll look back on that game as a key turning point in our title challenge, and one of the most important moments of the season. Mourinho had already given several saturnine post-match reactions before that game, but for the first time at the Britannia Stadium, he seemed to be expressing genuine frustration with his inability to resolve the lack of efficacy in our attacks, as well sincere doubt over our ability to remain genuine title contenders. And on the basis of what we’ve seen since, it appears that a definite line has been drawn under the initial game plan of attempting to dominate possession and press as high as possible, as the Portuguese coach has begun to noticeably take more liberties in his tactical set-ups – we’ve seen him gradually begin to revert back to what he does best, and create a side that are, first and foremost, difficult to beat.
The asinine allegations of boring and negative football were of course immediately resurrected and aimed at the team following their surprisingly comfortable away draw to Arsenal last Monday. And though the game wasn’t the most enthralling, it did show us something important, which is that this group of players are capable of defending a hell of a lot better than they have been, and that issues up till now have been largely, if not wholly, tactical, rather than to do with the individual form of our defenders.
It’s this newly-prioritised solidity that will be key tomorrow afternoon when we play Liverpool. With the Merseyside club having to cope with injuries all over the pitch and also still rather un-brilliant at defending set pieces, not to mention given their relentlessly attacking method of play, opportunities to score should be rife, meaning the result will most likely be decided by our ability to deal with their attacking players, and of course, one in particular. There’s no question Liverpool will be vulnerable to the counter attack. The second goal they conceded at the Etihad on Thursday should be proof of this. To get caught out by a (well executed but ultimately) simple three pass move right at the end of the first half, away to the best side in the league, may show commendable positivity to some but to me just shows an unforgivable naivety, the sort of which we have to be prepared to exploit, ruthlessly.
The recent form book against Liverpool in the league does not make for good reading, however. Over our last 13 encounters, we’ve only managed to beat them twice, losing seven times. This is a stat, you may remember that was distorted last season in both matches against the Reds and by the same man on each occasion. We would have recorded both home and away victories last season but for equalising goals from Luis Suarez. The first at Stamford Bridge, came from a close range header he made space for by shoving Ramires over; the second, at Anfield, came in the 7th minute of six minutes of injury time, about half an hour after he should’ve been sent off for biting the arm of Branislav Ivanovic. The worry about the Uruguayan this time however isn’t that he may do something similar but rather that he’ll continue this incredible run of form, which has seen him score 19 league goals in 14 matches, raising his status from one of stars of the Premier League to one of the very best players in the world. Arguably, in current form, only Cristiano Ronaldo is a better (non-injured) player than Liverpool’s frontman. Keeping him quiet will be the toughest task of the season for our defenders so far.
Team Selection: Ramires’ suspension for this game is a huge loss for Mourinho, with Liverpool likely to field all three of their hardworking and energetic central midfielders: Joe Allen, Lucas Leiva and Jordan Henderson, the Brazilian’s energy will be sorely missed. I think the most likely tactic Mourinho will use to compensate will be to play Oscar deeper than usual alongside Mikel and Frank Lampard, although, depending on how committed he will be to using the counter attack, he may select Michael Essien to play in a very defensive, three man midfield. As against Bayern Munich, I think we might see our quickest, most direct front three of Hazard, Schurrle and Torres selected also.
For the visitors, they’re still having to deal with three big injuries to Daniel Sturridge, Steven Gerrard and Jose Enrique. The unavailability of the latter means the left hand side of defence is pretty weak. Upfront, Suarez is the biggest threat by a mile, but supporting players Phillipe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling are in decent form themselves and can’t be disregarded.
The tactical battle/clash of styles in this game is made all the more interesting by the story behind the two coaches implementing them. Mourinho handpicked Brendan Rogers to be run the academy at Chelsea in 2004 before making him an assistant coach in 2006. There are many parallels to draw between the two coaches, both of whom retired as players early and used their language skills and extensive knowledge of foreign coaching methods to get ahead in the profession. And though they each prefer two radically different styles of play, the two still share many values including the importance of attention to detail and the value of good man-management, which Rogers admits he learned from Mourinho.
As Rory Smith wrote in The Times this morning, Rogers has done more perhaps than any of the coaches under Mourinho during his first spell at Chelsea to escape the Portuguese’ shadow. Both coaches have managed to get more out of their squads this season, with all their problems, than seems at all reasonable. It should be a great game to watch, and providing Suarez doesn’t go crazy, I think one which will yield a positive result for us, with Mourinho’s added experience and ability to win ugly set to make the key difference.