What just over a week ago was set to be a title decider has now taken on the feel of a potential coronation for Liverpool. Chelsea lost their incredible unbeaten home streak under Jose Mourinho at just the wrong time last week to leave them five points behind the Premier League leaders with three matches remaining. While he has disingenuously played down his side’s title chances throughout the season, this time his words have a ring of frustrated authenticity.
Facing a side who are likely to believe that their chances have gone for this season, Liverpool’s prospects could be further boosted by Chelsea fielding a weakened team. Despite the fact that a win for Chelsea would open the door for Manchester City, Mourinho was defiant on Friday that his club does not owe anyone any favors and will simply do what is best for them. With the match sandwiched between the two legs of their Champions League semifinal with Atletico Madrid, that means leaving out several first-team regulars.
It doesn’t mean, though, that Liverpool can expect an easy ride. While definitely without the injured Petr Cech, John Terry and Eden Hazard, Chelsea’s team is still likely to be far from a completely unfamiliar one. Nemanja Matic and Mohamed Salah, both ineligible for the Champions League, have no reason not to feature, likewise with midfield duo Frank Lampard and John Mikel Obi, both of whom are suspended for the return leg. Branislav Ivanovic, suspended for the first leg, and Ashley Cole, who has barely featured in the last three months, should also be involved. Chelsea’s decision to send the vast majority of their young players, including Atletico goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, out on loan, leaves them with little room for mass rotation.
With a spot in a possible Champions League final lineup to aim for, few players will be keen to take their foot off the gas. Certainly Mourinho does not know how to go down quietly and the prospect of preventing another club’s party will surely appeal.
While some of the importance may have been taken off the match from Chelsea’s point of view, it will be vital that Liverpool approach it in exactly the same way they did in the mammoth clash with Manchester City two weeks ago. Then, as in so often this season, Liverpool began the match at a phenomenal tempo that their opponents couldn’t handle.
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In their run of 11 straight victories, Liverpool have scored an incredible 10 goals in the first 16 minutes. An unfamiliar Chelsea side, potentially not 100 percent focused, could certainly be susceptible to that king of besiegement spurred on by an electric Anfield crowd who have enjoyed some memorable nights against Chelsea in the past decade.
While Chelsea are capable of being proactive, as they notably were against Arsenal, Mourinho will likely set his side up with three central midfielders and look to frustrate Liverpool, at least early on. Should they survive that period then Mourinho will fancy his side’s chances, especially if the pace of Salah and Schurrle are included, to exploit a vulnerable Liverpool team on the break. While they got a late winner, the match with City was also a demonstration that Liverpool’s intensity has an understandable propensity to drop after the break.
It also showed the danger for Liverpool of trying to hold what they have. The Merseysiders have got into the incredible position they are now in by going for broke with absolutely no fear. They are simply not good enough defensively to sit back, and it would be fatal for them to do so now at the very last. A quick start could also leave Chelsea minds increasingly turning toward the Champions League rather than putting in the blood and sweat necessary to get back into a game that is unlikely to yield them anything tangible.
There is reason to believe Liverpool can hurt Chelsea early. Mark Schwarzer made a crucial error in his first Premier League appearance for Chelsea against Sunderland and the veteran goalkeeper also looked less than secure against Atletico Madrid. If Ivanovic is at center-back it also presents opportunities, with the Serbian showing a greater propensity for errors when deployed in that role last season. Rodgers may also be eager to have the in-form Raheem Sterling take advantage of the slowing legs of Ashley Cole.
The fact that Chelsea are likely to defend deep, means Liverpool could take longer than normal to break the opposition down, as happened against Sunderland and West Ham recently. However, the momentum and motivation rests squarely with Liverpool and a win to take them within touching distance of a first championship in 24 years is a distinct possibility.
Prediction: Liverpool 2-1 Chelsea
Where to watch: The Barclays Premier League match will kick off at 9.05 a.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by NBCSN, with a live stream available on NBC Sports Live Extra.