Chelsea face Liverpool in the Premier League this Sunday with Champions League qualification the prize on offer. Jurgen Klopp’s potent Reds need just a draw to make sure they’ll be involved in Europe’s leading competition next season, but only a win will do for the Blues to keep their long-shot top four bid alive.
Throw in the bizarre non-geographical rivalry between these two teams, the backdrop of Liverpool’s Champions League final with Real Madrid and Mohamed Salah returning to the club that deemed him surplus to requirements, and this weekend’s clash looks set to be an intriguing encounter laced with subplots and ulterior motives.
So, how will this one pan out? This week’s experts, Football League World’s Liverpool-mad George Dagless and Chelsea FanCast’s David Chidgey, share their thoughts and predictions ahead of the 4.30pm kickoff.
The Champions League final in Kiev isn’t for another fortnight, but Klopp will be painfully aware of how an injury to a key player would significantly hamper Liverpool’s chances of beating the European champions, especially considering the Reds’ squad depth – particularly up front – isn’t the strongest. On the other hand, missing out on the top four at this point in the season would be catastrophic for the Merseysiders and they haven’t mathematically clinched a place in it just yet.
Do you expect to see some rotation this weekend? Who would you like to come into the side?
George: “I think we’ll make changes but not too many. Some will need a rest but we’ve got a few injuries and the players should have a spring in their step after making it to the final in the week so I don’t think there will be radical selection calls made. Nathaniel Clyne is one man who I’d like to see start and he’s hardly a weak alternative to bring in. Danny Ings may get a run though Klopp has preferred to keep the likes of Roberto Firmino in the side as much as possible. Other than that, Alberto Moreno might get a chance and Adam Lallana could be a late call.”
Perhaps Antonio Conte’s biggest head-scratcher for Liverpool’s visit, meanwhile, centres around formations and who should start up front. 3-4-3 remains Chelsea’s primary game-plan but the Italian modified it to a 3-5-2 last time out against Swansea City, with Eden Hazard playing just off the centre-forward, and that system helped Chelsea clinch a point at Anfield in the reverse fixture earlier this season.
Which formation is best suited to beating Liverpool?
David: “I don’t see it so much an issue about systems; Conte and most managers often change system mid-game depending on the situation. The best way for Chelsea to play Liverpool is for their players to turn up on the day, something which they have failed to do many times this season. If they do, I am sure Chelsea are good enough to beat Liverpool. I suspect that Conte will go for his tried and tested 3-5-2 mindful of Liverpool’s attacking threat.”
And who deserves the nod up front?
David: “If Conte goes 3-5-2 which I suspect he will then he needs to start with Olivier Giroud up front. On form Giroud poses a bigger goal threat than Morata who still seems to be struggling with the physicality and pace of the Premier League. But, there is no reason why they can’t play together and it would not surprise me to see Conte bringing Morata on depending on the match situation.”
From a Liverpool perspective, which striker would you feel more comfortable facing?
George: “That’s a tough question. Morata is a class act who I think will only be better next season as he gets used to the game here. As it stands, though, I think I’d rather face him. Giroud has a knack of scoring against us and has always caused us problems when he’s played for Arsenal. Of course, he is in a new team and that may change things slightly but, at the end of the day, you know roughly what our defence is going to face when he’s on the field. Plenty of aerial challenges will be on show if Giroud plays and it’ll be up to Virgil van Dijk to cover Dejan Lovren. Lovren will be targeted once again by a big forward.”
Three of the last six meetings between Chelsea and Liverpool have ended in a 1-1 draw, including this season’s meeting at Anfield. Conte will feel his side got the better of the Reds that day, with Hazard playing a starring role as Chelsea’s driving force on the counter-attack, even if the scores did eventually end level.
What needs to be learned from that 1-1 draw to stop Chelsea going one better at home?
George: “Honestly, I thought Chelsea were the better side in that one and tactically they nailed it. It’ll be a different battle given that the onus is on Chelsea to attack as they have to win the game, though, and so that might play into our hands. Chelsea will likely look to wear us down rather than blitz us and so we’ll just have to pick and choose the best times to break. We won’t have the energy to burst forward at every transition so I think being efficient with that will be key as well as weathering the pressure the Blues apply.”
Perhaps the most curious subplot heading into Sunday’s game is Mohamed Salah’s return to Stamford Bridge. Out of favour at Chelsea, the Egyptian forward left for Serie A and transformed into a superstar, earning a big-money move back to the Premier League with the Reds last summer. The Salah we see now, just a few goals shy of Ian Rush’s record, is almost incomparable to the young, patchy winger who failed to make his mark with Chelsea.
How do Chelsea fans feel about Salah’s incredible form this term? Is there any resentment, envy or bemusement?
David: “Having seen his inept performances for Chelsea utter bemusement. I don’t resent his form, he seems like a decent chap so I’m happy for him and bear him no ill will. Obviously I hope that Chelsea do a job on him on Sunday and keep him quiet. Hopefully the Chelsea version of Salah will return and will see shots ending up nearer the corner flag than the back of the net.”
Which key battle will decide this game?
David: “Given Liverpool’s potent attacking threat, Chelsea’s defence and midfield needs to be at the top of their game. It will be interesting to see if Conte selects Emerson Palmieri ahead of Marcos Alonso who will be available after suspension. Although Alonso has been one of our best players this season, Palmieri has impressed in his absence and looks a better defender and certainly has more pace. Both these attributes will be needed if we are to keep Salah quiet.
“If we are to get a win we need to finish off any chances we create. Hazard needs to put in a big performance in a match against good opposition and whichever striker plays, they need to convert their chances. Given that Liverpool score goals, it is vital we score from as many chances as we get, something we have struggled to do this season.”
George: “The battle between Giroud and our centre-halves is one key battle, as well as Sadio Mane and Salah getting in behind Chelsea’s wing-backs. Giroud likes it up against us, I’ve already touched on that, and we’ve seen even this season the joy powerful strikers can get up against Lovren, despite the improved defence with van Dijk involved.
And finally gents, let’s hear your score predictions…
George: “I think Chelsea will look to start brightly but I don’t believe they are the kind of side that can kill us off in the opening minutes of the match. Get through any opening salvo and we should grow in confidence to get the result we need for the top four. I’m going for 1-1.”
David: “Chelsea are far too unpredictable to make a score prediction. However, if Chelsea’s defence can snuff out Liverpool’s attack and Chelsea have their scoring boots on I would not be surprised to see it end 2-1 to Chelsea.”