If their pulsating Carabao Cup tie is a preview of things to come, Saturday’s immediate rematch between Chelsea and Liverpool as the scene shifts to Stamford Bridge has the makings to be the Premier League match of the season to date.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Chelsea (5-1-0), who had their 100 percent start to the season end with a scoreless draw at West Ham United in a London derby last weekend, gave as good as they got in that regard by doing the same to Liverpool (6-0-0) in Wednesday’s 2-1 thriller at Anfield.
Eden Hazard scored the match-winner in absolutely filthy fashion in the 85th minute, taking on half of Liverpool’s defence in a weaving, marauding run. The Belgium international nutmegged Roberto Firmino and corkscrewed Alberto Moreno into the ground on the flank – jinking this way and that – before rifling a right-footed shot in the right side of the penalty area across Simon Mignolet and into the net.
“Eden is one of the best players in Europe and in the world, for sure. What he’s done today, that goal is proof of that,” said assistant coach Gianfranco Zola to the club’s official website, himself no stranger to scoring big goals while donning the Chelsea kit. “He is getting better and better. He is doing the right things at the right moment and in a wonderful way.”
This win tamped down the growing questions surrounding Maurizio Sarri’s use of midfielder N’Golo Kante, whose rise to prominence as one of the world’s best midfielders came through his usage in a holding and a disrupting role at both Leicester City and Chelsea under fellow Italian managers Claudio Ranieri and Antonio Conte.
Kante’s limitations appeared to be laid bare at London Stadium against West Ham United, who sat back in two blocks of four and prevented the diminutive France international from finding space to navigate with the ball or separation from defenders to meet crosses in the penalty area.
If Kante ventures forward like Sarri prefers, then there is a large area of open space behind him to exploit through Firmino and Sadio Mane on that left side in Liverpool’s attack. Chelsea’s potential problem could be exacerbated in that regard as regular central defender Antonio Rudiger is nursing a groin injury and his understudy Andreas Christensen was forced off Wednesday with an injury.
Sarri’s options include partnering David Luiz with veteran Gary Cahill in central defence or plugging right back Cesar Azpilicueta into the middle with Luiz and using Davide Zappacosta on the flank. These issues have made Zola’s comments about moving on quickly from Wednesday’s victory, however exciting it was, prescient.
“I don’t think it will have a big impact, to be honest,” Zola said of the win. “Of course, we are very pleased and we will go into the game with a good feeling but Saturday is going to be different.”
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp turned over eight of his starting XI from the side that strolled to a 3-0 victory last weekend over Southampton. The most notable change was giving midfielder Fabinho his first start since signing from Monaco last summer. His only previous appearance was a stoppage time run-out in Liverpool’s 3-2 win over PSG in their Champions League opener.
“It’s a disappointment, but we don’t have much time to reflect on it and have to go forward,” Mignolet told Liverpool’s official website as he is expected to give way to No. 1 Alisson for this match.
“There is not much time to pick ourselves up, but I don’t think you can prepare for it any better than facing the opponent three days before. We have to learn from it, try to do better and then hopefully get the three points at Chelsea on Saturday.”
The other positive for Liverpool in personnel was central defender Dejan Lovren making his season debut and playing the full 90 minutes. Lovren, who helped Croatia reach the World Cup final, had a conservative rehabilitation from a muscle injury following his return from Russia and partnered with Joel Matip while regular first-choice options Virgil Van Dijk and Joe Gomez were rested.
Van Dijk was forced off early in the second half against Southampton with a rib injury and did not practice Thursday, while Mane and midfielder James Milner also were held out.
Klopp did not seem overly broken up about his first loss of the year in all competitions, though Liverpool do have the chance to win their first seven games in a season for the first time in the Premier League era. It also appears he took some mental notes from the match, noting there are things his side will have to do better to maintain that 100 percent start in league play.
“They were not really a big threat, I would say,” said Klopp, whose team held a 1-0 lead through Daniel Sturridge’s goal just before the hour. “More and more we got used to it. The first half was good and the second half started well. We scored the goal and could have scored before.
“We played much calmer football, which is another thing we could have done in the first half already because against such a dominant side like Chelsea, in the moments when you have the ball then you need to dominate them. Otherwise you give them the ball and they start again with all the trouble. You have to get that.”
Mane, Salah and Firmino have combined for 10 goals in all competitions thus far, with Sturridge making the most of his limited playing time with three markers as well. Liverpool’s defence has been virtually airtight on the road, conceding just once in three matches in victories over Crystal Palace, Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur.
While Liverpool are 2-7-6 in their last 15 matches against Chelsea in all competitions, both matches came in league play and at Stamford Bridge. The Reds will again try to record their first clean sheet against the Pensioners since a 2-0 League Cup win at Stamford Bridge on Nov. 29, 2011, as Wednesday’s loss marked the 17th straight match they conceded to Chelsea.
Olivier Giroud’s goal for Chelsea just after the half-hour separated the two sides in last season’s corresponding fixture. The France international has six goals in 12 lifetime matchups versus Liverpool.
Per Ladbrokes, Liverpool are slight favourites at 7/5 odds, with Chelsea close behind at 17/10. Oddsmakers are expecting an outcome in either direction, with the drew lagging decisively behind at 5/2 odds.
Goals are expected in this contest as well, Liverpool are 12/5 favourites to win with an outcome of more than 2.5 goals. Chelsea get a 29/10 on a victory with that glut of goals, followed by draws of 0-0 and 1-1 with 12/5 odds. A Blues victory by a 0-0 or 1-0 scoreline has 13/2 odds.
Salah is the top option to open the scoring at 4/1, with in-form Sturridge and Hazard joint-second at 11/2 odds. Chelsea’s options at striker — Giroud and Alvaro Morata — are both 6/1, while Salah’s supporting crew — Mane and Roberto Firmino — are 7/1 and 13/2, respectively.
The Egypt international is close to even money to score in this match, leading the way at 6/5. Hazard edges out Sturridge for second at 17/10 compared to the Liverpool striker’s 7/4 return. Morata and Giroud are again paired together, this time at 15/8, with Firmino at 2/1 and Mane 5/2.
The temptation is that there is a lot to unpack for both teams in the 96 hours between kickoff for the second match between these teams, but let’s try to avoid that for a moment or two. Yes, let’s recognise Hazard’s moment of brilliance for what it is because it was just that — a scintillating individual effort that left jaws and Liverpool defenders’ jockstraps on the floor, a beaten keeper in Mignolet, and a fourth-round date in the Carabao Cup as a reward.
But the bigger picture is where does Chelsea go from here. After the draw against West Ham United, Sarri did his best to play down expectations for this week, noting to The Times that Liverpool’s side as currently constructed is at least one year ahead of where Sarri feels Chelsea are. Both teams had fairly overturned rosters for this match compared to their league lineups, which led to Zola’s comments about the win likely to be quickly forgotten.
This will be “a thinking man’s game,” one where professional fouls will take place, one where veterans with tactical nous will find those precious centimetres and half-metres of space that allow a through ball to find a hole or a better shot that goes from being deflected by a defender to on frame. Yes, there will be blood and thunder in which someone’s athleticism could lead to another magical moment like the one Hazard provided Wednesday, and it is possible the stakes will be so high someone will succumb to the red mist in a moment of madness, but this match will also be about pure football in both directions.
One key to the game will be how Liverpool press or contain Jorginho. Chelsea funnel their offence through the Italian, but he is also a deep-lying midfielder. The argument can be made that plays into Liverpool’s strength of high pressing through Milner, Georginio Wijnaldum and Naby Keita. It’s not about limiting Joringho’s touches since he will get them. It’s about limiting his options to move the ball forward.
This will also be a monumental challenge for Liverpool right back Trent Alexander-Arnold since Hazard will be marauding down the left flank for Chelsea. For all the talent Alexander-Arnold has, he also has shown the tendency to be caught out at times. The youngster has improved over the past month, not picking up a yellow card in his last four matches after getting booked in each of the first three, but there is no doubt Chelsea will test him early and often.
There is also the mater of the No. 1 keepers, both of whom where held out Wednesday and were spectators. Kepa Arrizabalaga has yielded just two goals in his last five starts since Chelsea’s chaotic 3-2 win over Arsenal last month, and Alisson has allowed two goals in his six league wins and four overall. Neither keeper is under immense pressure, but this will be Alisson’s first match in a true hostile venue since arriving at Anfield, and it will be interesting to see how the Brasil international responds.
There is not much separating these teams — Wednesday’s 90 minutes proved that given the superlative effort Hazard had to produce to create that thin margin. Klopp thinks he saw his team grow throughout the match adjusting to Sarri-ball, he’s going to find out quickly at the Bridge on Saturday.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Chelsea 1, Liverpool 1.