Has it really been six months?
Steven Gerrard, receiving a square pass from Mamadou Sakho on the half-way line, lets the ball slide under his right boot. Unbeknownst to the Liverpool captain, Demba Ba is lurking not far away, and as the Senegalese races to pick up the loose ball, Gerrard slips. Liverpool’s centre-backs are split, Ba has a free run on goal and slots the ball comfortably past the onrushing Simon Mignolet.
It’s a sequence that has been immortalised since in vines, photoshops and tweets; the moment where Liverpool’s title bubble burst. The goal panicked Brendan Rodgers’ outfit, who put in one of their most dysfunctional performances of the season; 73% of possession, 21 shots from outside the box and 29 open play crosses. It smacked of desperation, and they haven’t been the same since.
How the past six months have changed the outlook of this fixture as Chelsea return to Anfield, four points clear at the top of the Premier League, and 12 clear of a Liverpool side struggling to rediscover the swashbuckling, marauding verve that propelled them on an 11-match winning streak and three games away from a first league title in 24 years.
Liverpool win 9/4
Chelsea win 11/10
(All odds provided by AllYouBet.ag are accurate as of today and subject to change)
Liverpool were the title favourites and Chelsea were the underdogs that day in late April, with Jose Mourinho in full “us against the world” siege mentality. The roles have reversed substantially; as many who micro-analysed Liverpool’s rotated starting lineup away to Real Madrid this week will have told you, it is now Brendan Rodgers who has his team in lockdown mode.
The pressure to claim a result against the champions-elect has been magnified by a return of only four points from the three recent, yet presentable, fixtures against Queens Park Rangers, Hull City and Newcastle United. And given the ‘relative’ success of a second-string line-up restricting Real Madrid to victory by a solitary goal at the Bernabeu on Tuesday, Rodgers has much to ponder ahead of another acid test.
The first of which lies in team selection, namely whether any of the seven midweek changes will retain their place come Saturday. Herein lies the conundrum for Rodgers, after Liverpool put in their most defensively organised and disciplined performance since the Merseyside derby in late September.
It seems likely, however, that the Liverpool boss will revert to type; Kolo Toure’s finest hour in a Liverpool shirt has been eulogised across the internet over the past 24 hours, but Dejan Lovren will be recalled, despite his less than impressive start to life at Anfield. Lucas Leiva’s hour of control and ball retention will give way to Steven Gerrard’s ailing legs and Hollywood diagonals, while the continued promise of Javier Manquillo will give way to the familiar calamity of Glen Johnson.
In Chelsea, Liverpool are facing a team without any real or obvious weaknesses, who have strolled through the first quarter of the Premier League season barely challenged. Jose Mourinho’s side have dropped points only twice this season, but both times when protecting single goal leads away to the two Manchester clubs. Will Mourinho once again choose to counter-attack and contain, or go for the jugular against a team with such obvious defensive frailties?
With the added firepower of Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas, it would be unreasonable to expect Mourinho to “park two buses”, as Rodgers quipped after the Blues’ dogged and defensive display in their 2-0 win at Anfield last season.
Rested for the Champions League trip to Maribor, the trio of Thibaut Courtois, Oscar and Costa will be pushing for selection, though Mourinho may be persuaded to persist with Didier Droba, who has scored 11 career goals against Liverpool, nine of them for Chelsea. During Mourinho’s previous dominant start to a Premier League season in 2005-6, his Chelsea side bullied Liverpool in a 4-1 win, with the Ivorian tormenter-in-chief that day.
The element of surprise could be Liverpool’s biggest weapon on Saturday, though the high-tempo, aggressive starts that so typified last season’s title charge have been conspicuous by their absence so far in 2014-5. A slow, probing and controlled performance would play right into Chelsea’s hands; Rodgers cannot play Mourinho at his own game.
An unlikely victory would send Liverpool joint-fourth, if only temporarily, and dispel the “dark cloud” that former striker John Toshack claimed was hanging over Anfield this week. Or Chelsea will power onwards to the most ominous and inevitable Premier League title in recent times. Resistance is futile.
Betting Instinct tip – Despite, or perhaps because of, Steven Gerrard’s likely return, Chelsea are stronger favourites now than in May. A repeat 2-0 away win is 15/2 with Intertops.eu
JAMES DUTTON is a freelance journalist who has written for The Mirror, The Guardian and The Times. James helps to run The False Nine football website, contributes to The Anfield Wrap and is a columnist for uMAXit Football