No matter where your allegiances lie, it has to be considered a shame that the build up, to what represented only two weeks ago, the most tense and important Premier League fixture of the season, has been dominated by the complete and utter non-story of Jose Mourinho ‘threatening’ to rest key players. Accusations have already been made that the Portuguese is actively looking to undermine the integrity of the competition, or simply just looking to provide a readymade excuse in anticipation of failure. I don’t think either of these indictments are fair but I also think that when confronted with them, Mourinho has done a particularly poor job of responding.
His claims this (Friday) afternoon, that Chelsea and its supporters are his only concern, and that the Premier League have effectively tied his hands by refusing to move the fixture, both seemed pretty shallow. Of course, at this stage of the season, making full use of your squad to best manage the remaining fixture list as you see fit, can in no way be described as ‘bringing the integrity of the competition into disrepute’. Why Jose couldn’t have just pointed this out, I don’t know, but regardless, we’ll go to Anfield this Sunday with a starting XI compromised almost entirely of highly-paid full internationals – no more worthy of credit or blame for the result than any team we’ve fielded this season.
Despite the title implications this match held only 8 days ago having all but disintegrated, the contest itself still promises to be interesting. For starters, it still represents the toughest test remaining for Liverpool as they look to complete a phenomenal and unprecedented 14 game winning streak as they close in on the League title. A loss to Chelsea would still leave them marginal favourites to become champions, but it would ensure at least that the title race remained alive until the final game week. Brendan Rodgers and his side know that victory this weekend would effectively seal the title; for them this is still a massive occasion.
Tactically, the game should be interesting as well. Unlike all of the other big sides to have visited Anfield this season (i.e. Arsenal, Everton, City & Spurs) Chelsea are expected to have actually learned something from the mistakes of their peers and to try to counter Liverpool’s fast paced and high pressing tactics, particularly in the opening 20 minutes of matches. Regardless of who he selects, Mourinho’s backline will sit typically deep early on and will be shielded by an imposing midfield three (most likely) composed of Nemanja Matic, Frank Lampard and Mikel John Obi. As a result, the home side will have far less opportunities to counter attack, but they will have longer periods of possession than normal, and more chances to bring the fullbacks forward and into play.
Rodgers’ key test on the day will be to balance his side’s natural comfort with playing attacking football with the fact that a draw should, and most probably will be enough. The fact his midfielders will enjoy more time on the ball than they’re used to may tempt Glen Johnson and Jon Flanagan to participate in attacks and take the risk of leaving space in behind for Mohamed Salah and Andre Schurrle to counter attack into.
For Liverpool, the two main selection dilemma’s involve the suspension of Jordan Henderson and the potential unavailability of Daniel Sturridge due to injury. The latter is obviously the more problematic and will require a formation change from the 4-4-2 (diamond) that was used to defeat Man City. Being forced to bring Lucas and Allen into the side might actually benefit Liverpool with the two of them both being excellent in possession and capable of recycling the ball quickly during dominant periods for their team. Physically however, they may struggle to match up against Chelsea’s more powerful holding midfielders. Both Matic and Mikel must be at least 5 inches taller and 15kg heavier than either of their expected opposite numbers – together they should be able to deal with Liverpool’s pressing straightforwardly.
For ourselves the key selection issues are in defence. With Ramires suspended and Luiz, Oscar, Willian, Torres and Hazard all likely to be rested for Wednesday, the front six practically picks itself. The back four will require some more thought. I expect Azpilicueta to be rested also but with Ivanovic and Cahill likely to be paired together for the first time this season against Atletico in midweek, it would surely make sense to give them at least one game together in preparation. Likewise with Ashley Cole, who despite showing an admirable lack of rust last Tuesday, would surely benefit from another outing this weekend.
If Mourinho does decide to rest Azpilicueta then the young Czech defender Tomas Kalas will most likely be the one to come in. He proved himself to be a perfectly competent, tactically smart and versatile defender whilst on loan but has predictably failed this season to break into the first team. I’d still personally back Kalas to make it into the Chelsea first team one day and to perform well if selected on Sunday; he would doubtlessly be targeted for the entire game by Suarez, Sterling and co down the right hand side however, in what would perhaps be the most difficult possible full Premier League debut he could’ve made.
Lots of reasons exist for Chelsea to be optimistic going into this game. Our record against the top sides in the division has been outstanding this season: Of 13 games against the other seven sides in the top eight, we have won nine, drawn three and lost only once – away to Everton. Meanwhile Luis Suarez goal record against teams in the top four is a fairly un-terrifying 0 in 5, whilst Liverpool’s extremely attacking methods, stylistically plays exactly into our hands.
However, taking the full context into account, with our focus very much on Wednesday and Liverpool riding this insane wave of momentum at the moment, not to mention the comparative lack of familiarity our starting XI is likely to have, the smart money has to be Liverpool gaining at least the draw which they need, en route to a classic league title triumph. And as long as we don’t roll over as pathetically as other big sides have done at Anfield this season, I’m sure I’ll find a way not to be too bitter about it.