Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho has been granted license to field a weakened team against Liverpool on Sunday, but it could still be far from an easy ride for the Merseysiders as they seek a victory that would put them within touching distance of the Premier League title.
Chelsea’s shock home defeat to Sunderland last Saturday left them five points behind Liverpool with just three games remaining. With their visit to Anfield sandwiched between the two legs of their Champions League semifinal with Atletico Madrid and having lost John Terry and Petr Cech to injury in the first meeting in the Spanish capital, Mourinho made clear his desire to prioritize their continental hopes. That wish has now been supported owner Roman Abramovich.
It is still likely to be far from a scratch side that Mourinho deploys. Branislav Ivanovic could well feature having been suspended in midweek, as could Ashley Cole, who has barely featured in recent months. With Czech 20-year-old Tomas Kalas the only realistic alternative to come into the defense, Gary Cahill may well start alongside Ivanovic in an effort to work on a partnership that is likely to be deployed in the return leg against Atletico.
In midfield, Frank Lampard and John Mikel Obi are both probable starters, given that they will be suspended on Wednesday, while Nemanja Matic is ineligible for the Champions League. Up front Mohamed Salah and Andre Schurrle could start either side of Demba Ba. A depleted side for sure, but one that is still capable of giving Liverpool a stern examination.
Indeed, in addition to the massive pressure now on their shoulders, Liverpool must now cope with the potential pitfall of falling into a false sense of security. The atmosphere was electric when Liverpool took on Manchester City two weeks ago and the team responded with an electric start. Both supporters and players must do likewise against Chelsea.
It is hard to imagine the atmosphere not being intense given the recent history between the two clubs. The rivalry developed from three phenomenally intense Champions League semifinals in the space of just four seasons, with the first, in 2005, producing an infamous winner from Liverpool’s Luis Garcia which is still vividly remembered by Chelsea fans by Mourinho’s description of it as a “ghost goal.”
Liverpool’s hopes of goals in the latest edition of the rivalry could be boosted by the return of Daniel Sturridge. The striker missed the 3-2 victory against Norwich City last week with a hamstring injury but claimed he was “hopeful” of being fit for Sunday. And the England international will have extra motivation to want to put in a strong performance. Sturridge was given little opportunity to impress during his time at Chelsea and when he was he was played out wide rather than in his favored position through the middle.
How Mourinho must be wishing that he has been able to inherit a striker who has struck 20 goals in the Premier League this season, more than all three of Chelsea’s strikers combined. Bucking the current trend, Sturridge explained that he wouldn’t restrain himself should he give his former club another reminder of what they’re missing out on.
“I would like to show respect to my former club,” he said, according to Sky Sports. “But if I were to come on and score in the last minute I'm going to be on a mad one, aren't I? I don't want to -- but I don't know if I could control myself if that happened.”