Four days after one of his boldest decisions as Liverpool coach, Brendan Rodgers will again be forced to confront his most agonizing moment at Anfield. Rodgers made seven changes to his lineup for a much-anticipated meeting with European champions Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, earning widespread criticism. A 1-0 defeat was no disgrace but regardless left Liverpool with an uphill struggle to continue in a competition that they strived so hard to get back into last season.
Liverpool exceeded all expectations by finishing second in Rodgers’ second campaign in charge, but the memory of what might have been looms particularly large heading into Saturday’s meeting with Chelsea at Anfield. The Merseysiders went into the corresponding fixture last season on an 11-match winning streak and with the Premier League title in their own hands with three matches remaining. But right before the half-time whistle came a moment that fatally derailed Liverpool’s title challenge when their talismanic captain, Steven Gerrard, slipped and Demba Ba raced through to score.
More than six months on, Liverpool have yet to recover any sense of momentum. There was likely little validity behind Rodgers’ suggestions that the changes he made in the Spanish capital in midweek were as much down to players being dropped rather than rested, but few of those left out of the team could have any complaint were that the case. Liverpool sit seventh in the Premier League table, with just 14 points and three wins from 10 games. Gerrard and the one Liverpool player to emerge with credit so far this season, Raheem Sterling, are set to return to the team on Saturday. Yet Liverpool will be faced with breaking down a Chelsea defense that frustrated them last season even when Rodgers could call upon the now-departed Luis Suarez and still injured Daniel Sturridge last. Still, Rodgers believes it’s a challenge that presents a huge opportunity.
“This is a new challenge and it will be a tough game,” he said in his pre-match press conference. “Chelsea were obviously strong last year and they have big experience in their squad and know the league and that helps them massively.
“Add to that the players who have come in, Diego Costa, one of Europe's top strikers, Cesc Fabregas, who knows the league and is a real creative force and add Eden Hazard to that who is one of the best young players in the world. This offers us a great chance at home to get a great result and then hopefully that can kick-start the season for us.”
Back in April, with Jose Mourinho having already conceded defeat in the title race, Chelsea played spoilers in a 2-0 win that led Rodgers to deride his opponents as having “parked two buses.” But as Rodgers now hints, Chelsea have kicked onto a whole new level since. The arrival of Fabregas has given the London side vital creativity in midfield, while Costa has provided the lethal penalty-box presence so visibly lacking as Chelsea faded away to finish a disappointing third last season.
An illustration of how fortunes have changed, for both, teams can be resoundingly seen in the goals-scored column. Whereas last season Liverpool broke the 100-goal mark, finishing with 30 more than Chelsea, this time it is Mourinho’s men that have scored more than any other team, with 26, and twice as many as Liverpool.
Mourinho appears to view his greatest challenge right now as preventing complacency from creeping in to his players after such a strong start to the season. The Portuguese certainly didn’t hold back with his frustration after Chelsea could only draw 1-1 at Maribor on Wednesday to leave them still waiting to confirm a place in the last 16 of the Champions League.
He has also voiced his displeasure with Liverpool having an extra day’s rest to prepare for Saturday’s fixture, although he might take some pleasure from Spain granting his wish not to call up Costa. The striker is set to return to Chelsea’s lineup after starting on the bench in midweek.
Prediction: The same fixture last season saw Mourinho at his pantomime-villain best -- sticking everyone behind the ball and showing little interest in going forward until a mistake was forthcoming. It would be a surprise were he to take the same approach this time around. While he will always be an inherently reactive manager, Mourinho is now capitalizing on the greater offensive weapons at his disposal. And with Fabregas operating as one of the two central midfielders, he is taking greater risks -- as shown by Chelsea keeping just four clean sheets in all competitions this season.
In truth, Mourinho will also know that there would be little value in showing Liverpool such respect this time around. Rodgers’ side are far from the devastating attacking force of the second-half of last season and it says much about Liverpool’s struggles that their performance in Madrid is being touted so highly in some quarters. Lacking fluidity going forward, Liverpool will likely offer up enough opportunities at the back to give Chelsea another win -- perhaps by the same scoreline as last season, although in a very different manner.
Liverpool 0-2 Chelsea
Kickoff time: 7.45 a.m. EST
TV channel: NBCSN
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra