Anfield houses many ghosts and will undoubtedly be a cauldron come Sunday when Liverpool try to stay atop the Premier League table – and likely have to re-claim that top spot from Manchester City in the process.
But they are the ones facing those ghosts as Chelsea arrive at Merseyside looking to land a damaging blow to Liverpool’s hunt for a long-sought first Premier League title.
It has taken Liverpool (25-7-1) five years to come full circle from the last time they had a chance to win the Premier League. In 2014, Brendan Rodgers’ side hosted Chelsea with a five-point lead on the Blues and a three-point advantage on Manchester City with three matches remaining.
Then came Steven Gerrard’s infamous slip, which allowed Chelsea’s Demba Ba to streak by the Liverpool talisman and slot past Simon Mignolet in stoppage time in the first half. The Blues, then managed by Jose Mourinho and playing a little-known Egyptian striker named Mohamed Salah, won that match 2-0 to throw the title race open.
The following week, Liverpool – knowing it had to score a raft of goals to overtake City’s superior goal difference – went for broke at Crystal Palace after building a 3-0 lead, only to be pegged back in a disastrous 3-3 draw that killed off their chances to win their first Premier League title.
The scars are still fresh to Liverpool’s supporters, desperate for a Premier League title more than the sixth UEFA title they are also pursuing, yet Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp insists those memories are not part of his side’s preparation for this crunch match between top-three sides.
“I’m not sure if that’s in anybody’s mind, apart from you,” Klopp said at Friday’s news conference. “I didn’t think a second about it; I heard about that incident. It’s a completely new story. Things happen once in a lifetime, sometimes twice and sometimes never. It’s all about the game on Sunday, it has nothing to do with any games before. I don’t know how many Chelsea players are still involved, maybe a couple from my team.
“Everything changed, only the colours and names of the teams are the same, pretty much. I’m completely positive about the game, not about the result – because I know we have to work really hard for it.”
Liverpool have won six on the bounce in all competitions and are unbeaten in 15 (10-5-0) since back-to-back losses at Manchester City in league play that re-opened this race and at Wolverhampton in the FA Cup. The Reds are halfway towards their second straight Champions League semifinal appearance after a 2-0 home win over Porto on Tuesday.
Roberto Firmino set up Naby Keita’s goal in the fifth minute and added his own in the 26th as Liverpool put themselves in good position to advance ahead of next week’s second-leg tie at Dragao. The other good news for Klopp was the return of centre back Dejan Lovren, who combined to solidify the spine of Liverpool’s back four with Virgil Van Dijk as the Reds recorded their first clean sheet in any competition since their scoreless draw at Everton in the Merseyside Derby on March 3.
“Dejan did brilliant, he played a really good game after quite a while of being out for injury reasons,” Klopp said as he now has his full complement of centre backs with both Joe Gomez and Joel Matip also healthy. “But it was so important that Joel and Virg could play through that period without Joe and Dejan – and Fabinho had to play as a centre-half as well.”
While Salah did not score mid-week, the hope is he is finally ready to kick on after finally scoring his 50th Premier League goal in last weekend’s win at Southampton. It ended an eight-match goalless drought as the Egypt international has combined with Firmino and Sadio Mane to score 56 goals in all competitions.
The trio has accounted for nine goals in matches against the other “Big Six” sides, but Firmino has accounted for six of them – highlighted by his hat trick against Arsenal.
Liverpool are 18-3-1 in all competitions at Anfield this season, and the “1” belongs to Chelsea, who rallied to win 2-1 in the third round of the Carabao Cup in September. Eden Hazard won the match with a goal of individual brilliance, skipping away from Keita on the right side and corkscrewing Alberto Moreno before rifling a shot across Mignolet and inside the left post on 85 minutes.
Hazard outdid that goal Monday in leading Chelsea (20-6-7) to a 2-0 derby victory at home over West Ham United. He opened the scoring with what is arguably the Premier League goal of 2018-19, taking the ball 40 yards out and splitting two midfielders before slaloming through the Irons’ back four. After finding a sliver of space among them, he shifted the ball to his right foot and ripped a shot from 12 yards past Lukasz Fabianski.
Hazard added the second goal at the death with a composed finish after being picked out by Ross Barkley, and the Belgium international is on the verge of his first 20-goal season with Chelsea. He entered as a substitute in the 59th minute in Thursday’s first-leg Europa League quarterfinal tie at Slavia Prague and helped the Blues emerge with a 1-0 victory as Marcos Alonso’s header on a cross from Willian in the 86th minute separated the sides.
“I’m really happy with the result, and also with the performance,” coach Maurizio Sarri told Chelsea’s official website. “In this moment we are able to suffer, and in the past we were not able to suffer in the difficult moments of a match.
“In the past when we were in trouble, we immediately conceded a goal. Now we are able to stay in trouble to fight and to suffer without conceding anything.”
The short turnaround means Sarri will be juggling his starting XI, with the most likely changes being David Luiz for Andreas Christensen in central defence and Gonzalo Higuain leading the line over Olivier Giroud.
The biggest points of contention among Chelsea supporters will be whether Sarri trusts youngsters Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi in a crunch match over the more experienced Ross Barkley in midfield and both Willian and Pedro on the wings.
Giroud also came out condemning a video of Chelsea supporters singing “Salah is a bomber” in Prague prior to Thursday’s match, telling the club’s website, “I think these people shouldn’t belong to Chelsea. “I think the club and everybody condemns these kind of things, and we are 100 per cent behind Mo Salah. Nowadays it shouldn’t happen.”
Klopp was equally forceful at his press conference, saying, “It’s disgusting, another example of something which absolutely should not happen. We should not see it as a Chelsea thing or a Liverpool thing. It’s another sign that something is going wrong a little bit out there at the moment. It’s still only a few people doing it, but the stronger the reaction is from all of us, the more it will help to avoid things like this in the future.”
There will also be a moment of silence before the match to mark the 30th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster in which 96 fans died during an FA Cup match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.
Liverpool nicked a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge in the reverse fixture that came three days after their Carabao Cup loss. Hazard gave Chelsea the lead in the 25th minute, but Reds substitute Daniel Sturridge hit a world-class curler inside the upper right 90 from 25 yards in the 89th minute to split the points.
Chelsea are unbeaten in their last five in all competitions (2-3-0) vs. Liverpool and unbeaten in their last seven at Anfield (3-4-0) since a 4-1 loss in 2012.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Liverpool 1, Chelsea 1.
(Eden Hazard photo courtesy Chelsea FC official Twitter account)