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Liverpool host Chelsea amid difficult run

Posted: Mar 4, 2021
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No one, not even the Reds' biggest detractors, would've expected Liverpool's title defence to go down this way. Fewer would have thought injuries would blight and cripple a squad that had won the Premier League and Champions League in two previous seasons. But it's the uncertainty of football that keeps us on our toes.

In some ways, Liverpool's title defence ended in the moment Jordan Pickford's rash challenge put Virgil van Dijk out of commission. Van Dijk was a catalyst, immediately improving a brittle Liverpool defence that had finished firmly in mid-table since Klopp took over. Not for nothing was the Dutchman nominated for various Player of the Year awards by the PFA, UEFA and FIFA! His injury turned into a bit of a domino effect. Joel Matip and Joe Gomez followed him to the sidelines. New man Diogo Jota had a fine start to life at Anfield, but couldn't escape being injured. For a long time, Fabinho deputised excellently as a centre-back, but even he was ruled out for a significant amount of time.

If that was not enough, a similar fate has befallen Jordan Henderson now. The Liverpool captain is another player who deputised at centre-half. That leaves Liverpool with youngsters Nathaniel Phillips and Rhys Williams, and new signings Ben Davies and Ozan Kabak. Already, Kabak hasn't begun life in the Premier League particularly well. He has been at fault for goals conceded, particularly in a horrific debut at Leicester. Davies is yet to be seen, and it remains to be seen whether the former Preston man will be trusted as anything more than the ninth choice defensive option that he is.

Liverpool 


Expected XI (4-3-3): Allison; Robertson, Phillips, Kabak, Alexander-Arnold; Wijnaldum, Thiago, Jones; Mane, Firmino, Salah

Available substitutes: Adrian, Rhys Williams, Neco Williams, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Keita, Milner, Shaqiri, Origi

Doubtful: Diogo Jota, Fabinho

Injured: Kelleher, Van Dijk, Gomez, Matip, Henderson

LiverpoolLiverpool were, at one point, looking likely to challenge Chelsea's long-standing 86-game unbeaten home record. A record that was chronicled in Mourinho's original Chelsea stint, however, remains intact. Burnley ended up being the side that finally conquered Liverpool, ending their run of 68 games unbeaten at Anfield. Since then, Brighton, Manchester City and bitter city rivals Everton have all come away with wins from what was once a fortress. In fact, the win over basement club Sheffield United snapped a four-match losing streak in Premier League action.

Goals have dried up, and the defence, led by a shaky Ozan Kabak, hasn't performed to expectations. Thiago Alcantara also hasn't brought all the qualities that had him anointed as one of the world's best midfielders. He has shown flashes of brilliance, but is yet to impose himself on games. Liverpool need him to be their talisman in the absence of Henderson. Curtis Jones has improved leaps and bounds, and his goal against Sheffield United was further evidence of that. He has grown into a midfielder who isn't daunted by the best.  His dynamism has come a long way towards augmenting the attack.

Blues clues

Liverpool's best chance of hurting Chelsea is through their explosive front three. They have generally had the better of Chelsea in the last few years, and Sadio Mane was on target back in September. Mo Salah has been his usual self, scoring goals for fun despite his team's travails.

Liverpool Champions LeagueRoberto Firmino and Trent Alexander-Arnold seem like they are both coming back into top form after a few lean months. If they can get a goal or two, however, Chelsea could struggle to catch up. Liverpool's game plan should be to attack the spaces on either side of the back three. Particularly, if Hudson-Odoi and Alonso start as wing-backs. Neither is particularly effective at tracking back, and that leaves Azpilicueta and Rudiger with far too much to do.

The defence has to step up, or the likes of Werner and Mount will really hurt them. They'll hope Allison is back to his solid self after taking some time off due to personal loss. Fabinho will add much needed steel to the backline if he is fit to start. Alexander-Arnold was improved against Sheffield. Liverpool will hope he can keep his good run going and whip in crosses like he always does.

One to watch out for: Trent Alexander-Arnold


Chelsea 


Expected XI (3-4-2-1): Mendy; Rudiger, Christensen, Azpilicueta; Chilwell, Kovacic, Kante, Reece James; Werner, Mount; Giroud

Available substitutes: Kepa, Caballero, Zouma, Alonso, Emerson, Jorginho, Gilmour, Hudson-Odoi, Pulisic, Ziyech

Doubtful: Abraham

Injured: Thiago Silva

Thomas Tuchel has a blemish-less record as Chelsea manager. Granted, it has only been 9 games. But clean sheets in 7 of those games and 2 goals conceded is quietly impressive. In fact, Southampton's Takumi Minamino is the only opposition player to score against the Blues, with the other concession being an Antonio Rudiger own goal. Goals have been far less forthcoming than clean sheets, however. 10 goals in 9 games is not much to talk about. Creativity is an issue under Tuchel, mirroring the majority of his predecessor, Frank Lampard's tenure. Timo Werner has found his adaptation from Bundesliga to Premier League difficult, as has Kai Havertz. Last season's top scorer, Tammy Abraham, has not been as prolific this term.

Small changes make big difference

Werner, at least, has improved vastly. It was a simple change in position that seems to have unlocked him to an extent. Instead of left winger, he now occupies the role of an inside left forward behind a more traditional target man like Giroud or Abraham. He is winning penalties and providing assists, which is a certain positive in terms of his overall play. Mason Mount has been Chelsea's best player for a long time, under Lampard as well under Tuchel. The hard-working midfielder is only behind Jack Grealish and Kevin de Bruyne in terms of chances created in the Premier League this season. Callum Hudson-Odoi has been excellent as a right wing-back. He soars into opposing defences, providing an extra outlet out wide.

Marcos Alonso, discarded by Lampard after a disagreement, has been restored by Tuchel. And has taken to the left wing-back role like a fish to water. Jorginho and Kovacic have formed a solid midfield partnership, and Kante is his usual tenacious self when asked upon. Andreas Christensen has deputised quite brilliantly for Thiago Silva, including in a superb performance against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League.

Code Red

While Tuchel's decision to go with three at the back has certainly shored things up defensively, it hasn't done much for the attack. Adding two of Jorginho, Kovacic and Kante has stifle the creativity - of theirs as much as their opponents'. None of them is particularly good at goalscoring. Jorginho is the Blues' penalty-taker, but he has only ever scored one open play goal, while Kovacic's entire catalogue of goals in a Chelsea shirt has just two entries. Kante, being a defensive midfielder, isn't even expected to shoulder that burden. That leaves only the three forwards and the wing-backs to take up the goalscoring responsibility.

ChelseaMaybe a shift to a back four might work out better. It would free Hudson-Odoi of defensive duties and allow Reece James and Ben Chilwell to be comfortable in their roles. It is unlikely, however, that Tuchel would go for that right now.

Even if attack is hamstrung, the defence is working, and it's a case of why fix something if it ain't broke? This may just be the game for Timo Werner. He won a penalty in the reverse fixture that Jorginho missed, and his pace caused problems. If Fabinho can't return, he would fancy his chances of outrunning Kabak and Phillips. He could take a cue from Harvey Barnes, who outran the Turk to score Leicester's third goal. Mason Mount will again be crucial to how the Blues attack.

One to watch out for: Mason Mount

Prediction: Liverpool 1-2 Chelsea