This certainly was not how Chelsea envisioned their return to Champions League football, and the prospects of bouncing back from a chastening home loss do not appear all that great with an angry front-running Liverpool side coming to Stamford Bridge after a European midweek defeat of their own.
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After a one-year absence from Europe’s premier club competition, Chelsea earned their way back into the hunt for Ol’ Big Ears by virtue of winning the Europa League title last June. Much had changed for the Pensioners in the three months that preceded Tuesday’s Group H opener versus grizzled Spanish side Valencia, most notably Frank Lampard taking over as coach and committing to reloading the London side through homegrown youth.
Yet that youthful exuberance and naivete also proved costly as a split-second of indecision in the 74th minute by defender Andreas Christensen proved costly in a 1-0 defeat. A chance to salvage a point also came and went in the 87th minute when Ross Barkley blazed a penalty off the crossbar after VAR adjudged Valencia defender Daniel Wass handled a downward header by Fikayo Tomori.
“We created enough good chances, had a penalty and then conceded from one shot on target,” Lampard said after the defeat. “It’s a harsh lesson of Champions League football because we played pretty well but lost.
“The reality of losing the first game at home makes the rest of the games more important, particularly when they come next back-to-back away from home [Lille and Ajax]. We need to have a strong focus on getting a result in one of those games now.”
There was also injury on top of the insult of defeat, and that it was what impacts Chelsea greatest heading into this contest. Midfielder Mason Mount, the linchpin of Lampard’s youth brigade was scythed down on a studs-up challenge by Frances Coquelin just before the quarter-hour. Coquelin somehow escaped a sending off, but Mount was not as fortunate as he could not continue.
The good news was X-rays on Mount’s ankle revealed no ligament damage, and the England international was able to begin hydrotherapy-based rehab. Lampard held out slight hope Friday the 20-year-old could have a role in this match, but if the England international cannot, the first-year Chelsea boss may have to switch out of the 3-4-2-1 set-up he has used the last two matches.
Christian Pulisic was an unused substitute for the second straight contest, but Mount’s potential absence opens the door for playing time. Depending on the formation, Pulisic could be on the wing in a 4-3-3 on either side of Barkley – the most natural option to replace Mount as playmaker – or serving in a three-quarter’s role underneath striker Tammy Abraham in the 3-4-2-1
Lampard has used the latter formation for just two matches, the first creating an impressive offensive display in a 5-2 rout of Wolverhampton at Molineux last weekend.
The problem remains a fragile back line, though they could be aided with the potential return of midfield shield N’Golo Kante. Chelsea’s defence, though, remains a substantial work in progress and one the reigning European champions and current league leaders could exploit in ruthless fashion with their array of attacking talent.
Yet that talent went dormant for a second straight year in Italy, where Jurgen Klopp’s side opened defence of that sixth European title with a 2-0 loss at Napoli on Tuesday. It was an off night for the Reds, who conceded twice after the 82nd minute – first through Dries Mertens’ penalty after Andrew Robertson felled Jose Callejon and then by former Spurs striker Fernando Llorente, who was the beneficiary of a rare yet ghastly giveaway by Virgil van Dijk.
“We are really critical with ourselves but it was not a really, really bad performance; it was a game which you can win at Napoli, but we didn’t because we didn’t score and that doesn’t work then really,” Klopp said post-match. “You want to then have at least a point and we didn’t get that because of the penalty.
Liverpool, though, are the only Premier League squad with the maximum 15 points through five matches, and their five-point bulge on two-time champions Manchester City is the largest in Premier League history after five matches. Of course, those who see the glass half-empty on Merseyside would point out Liverpool are the only team in the last 11 seasons to not win the Premier League title when leading at Christmas – with them accomplishing that dubious feat for a third time in that span last term.
The Reds totaled five goals in their two league away wins at Southampton and Burnley, with their 3-0 victory at Turf Moor prior to the international break their only clean sheet in all competitions. First-choice keeper Alisson remains sidelined with a calf injury, with his expected return date after the next international break.
Adrian has deputised well in the Brasilian’s absence and had a brilliant double save to thwart Napoli’s Fabian Ruiz. Offensively, the star-studded trio of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, and Roberto Firmino have accounted for 10 of Liverpool’s 13 goals scored and factored on all but two of them.
The teams played a tightly contested match in the UEFA Super Cup last month in Istanbul, with Liverpool winning on penalties after playing to a 2-2 draw over 120 minutes. Liverpool’s Sadio Mane had a brace, canceling out Olivier Giroud’s first-half goal and giving the Reds a short-lived lead in the first extra period before Jorginho leveled from the spot.
Adrian was the hero for Liverpool after stopping Abraham on Chelsea’s fifth penalty attempt after the previous nine were converted by both teams.Liverpool took four points from the two league matches last term after Chelsea eliminated them in the third round of the Carabao Cup with a 2-1 win at Anfield on a magnificent solo effort by the since-departed Eden Hazard in the 85th minute.
The Reds are 2-2-1 in their last five league visits to Stamford Bridge.
Odds and Ends, Per Ladbrokes
To Win: Chelsea 12/5; Draw 27/10; Liverpool (Evens)
Both Teams to Score: Yes 4/9; No 31/20
Over/Under 2.5 goals: Over 1/2; Under 11/8
First Goal Scorer Chelsea: Abraham 4/1; Batshuayi, Giroud 5/1; Mount 15/2; Pedro 8/1
First Goal Scorer Liverpool: Salah 4/1; Origi, Mane 9/2; Firmino 11/2; Shaqiri 7/1
Anytime Goal Scorer Chelsea: Abraham 7/5; Batshuayi, Giroud 7/4; Pedro 11/4; Mount 13/5
Anytime Goal Scorer Liverpool: Salah 13/10; Mane, Origi 6/4, Firmino 15/8; Shaqiri 12/5
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Chelsea 0, Liverpool 2.
PREDICTED HALFTIME SCORE: Chelsea 0, Liverpool 1.
PREDICTED FIRST GOAL-SCORER: Roberto Firmino
OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 6 PREVIEWS
Southampton (2-1-2) vs. Bournemouth (2-1-2)
Leicester City (2-2-1) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (2-2-1)
Everton (2-1-2) vs. Sheffield United (1-2-2)
Crystal Palace (2-1-2) vs. Wolverhampton (0-3-2)
(Frank Lampard photo courtesy Chelsea official Twitter account)