Oh boy! What to say that hasn’t already been said? With Liverpool and Chelsea in the Champions League again, it’s becoming an annual event.
On league standings, head-to-head, and the past weekend in the Premier League, Liverpool must be favourites. Liverpool won in fine style 5-0 against Aston Villa, who looked odds on for fourth. The win keeps Liverpool’s slender title challenge alive.
Chelsea played Tottenham, a club that the Blues tend to enjoy beating. Tottenham, with error prone Heurelho Gomes in goal, had become renowned for leaking goals. Mindful of Manchester United’s impending defeat, Chelsea would have been expected to win.
Instead, a limp 1-0 defeat by the Spurs dropped Chelsea out of title contention, to third behind Liverpool.
Two defeats by Liverpool home and away this season make a Blues’ back-to-back final appearance in the Eternal City look bleak. While the second leg at home should balance the tie back towards Chelsea, the strengths and weaknesses of both teams also favour the Reds.
Liverpool are devastatingly efficient once in the lead, and tend to go for asphyxiation rather than the killer blow. Liverpool are masters in soaking up pressure from a side desperate to regain parity. Chelsea often found this tactic frustratingly difficult to penetrate, as the 1-0 defeat at home attests.
With Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard on the pitch, the Reds’ first eleven equal the best teams in the Premier League and Europe.
Allying Torres pace and Gerrard’s passing ability, the Reds offer a frightful counter-attacking threat as teams push forward to score a leveller, but the away goals rule may make that risk one worth running at Anfield.
Pepe Reina is an agile custodian between the sticks, behind a miserly defence marshaled well by Jamie Carragher. The much-maligned Dirk Kuyt is always an alert and dangerous player who likes to creep in and score goals against a Chelsea squad too busy with Torres.
If these players remain relatively fit and present for both legs, added to Rafael Benitez’s famed mastery of European competitive tactics, Liverpool will be extremely dangerous.
One of a few possible weaknesses for Liverpool is ironically the weekend’s result. Having played themselves back into the league, their fixture schedule is more congested than Chelsea’s.
An important away fixture against Fulham before the first leg, a home tie against battling Blackburn between the ties, and a tough home game against Arsenal after the second leg lies ahead.
With Benitez’s penchant for squad rotation and blowing a fuse, will the Spaniard cope with such a calendar? A calendar he has never faced before, as usually the league is already long gone?
Aside from Benitez and Liverpool’s over reliance on a few key players, the squad itself is a weakness. Apart from Andrea Dossena, Ryan Babel, and possibly Yossi Benayoun, there is little strength in depth.
Chelsea has a lot of quality to spring from the bench on paper. Florent Malouda, Ricardo Quaresma and Salomon Kalou, whose cross helped knock out Liverpool last year, are a few examples.
Chelsea’s players though are playing under par. Michael Ballack seems to delight in one touch passing even when they do not end near a teammate. Malouda refuses to show his supposed quality and the team as a whole is finding scoring against teams resolute in defending difficult.
The lack of penetration against a team with the usually hapless Gomes is a case in point. The Chelsea lion is currently toothless, against a team as well organised at the back as Liverpool, and that is concerning for the Blues’ chances.
Chelsea’s famed organisational and defensive qualities also look shaky with sloppy defending at fault for Tottenham’s winner.
Chelsea’s strengths mean they cannot be discounted. Frank Lampard is a consistent goal-scoring midfield player, John Terry is a defensive rock, and Chelsea possesses arguably the world’s best goalkeeper in Petr Cech.
The return of Michael Essien is a huge plus for the Blues’ with his drive and desire. Didier Drogba, when he is not acting up, is a handful and one of the worlds’ deadliest strikers.
And Chelsea’s manager Guus Hiddink guided PSV, arguably a team not as strong as Chelsea, to the semi-finals of the Champions League four years ago.
If Tottenham was simply a blip in the Blues’ Hiddink inspired upturn since Phil Scolari’s departure, then Chelsea will be a huge threat to Liverpool. Chelsea can also afford to go for broke in Europe now the league has gone.
Jamie Carragher/Martin Skrtel vs Didier Drogba/Nicolas Anelka
Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka still find it awkward to play together upfront for Chelsea, at times fighting over the same blade of grass. However, for these two games the temptation to play Drogba alone upfront must be resisted.
Previous attempts at this tactic against the Reds failed. As much as he is a handful, Carragher and his central defensive partner-usually Skrtel, can team up and nullify the Ivorian.
However, if Anelka can drag one from the other by drifting deep or slightly wide of centre, leaving Drogba one-on-one, the Ivorian needs to dig deep and show his strength and desire.
A few early tough tackles form Carragher/Skrtel to leave Drogba on his bottom however, will push him to his petulant rolling and moaning, and the Reds will successfully contain Chelsea’s danger man for the rest of the game.
Steven Gerrard vs Michael Ballack
Ballack has been handed the defensive midfield role previously held by out-of-favour Mikel. The German needs to follow Gerrard like a limpet, harass him, and prevent him from passing and his late surging runs into the box.
If Ballack can do this and keep his side of the game simple; short passes to Michael Essien and Frank Lampard to drive forward, then Chelsea will nullify a huge part of Liverpool’s playing dynamic.
If Gerrard can resist Ballack’s attentions and settle on the ball, the Liverpool captain can dictate the game in midfield, find teammates, and bring them into the game at will, much like Francesco Totti does for Roma.
Gerrard’s passes for Torres enable the Spaniard to employ his footwork and spin into shooting opportunities.
John Terry/Alex or Ricardo Carvalho vs Fernando Torres
Possibly the determining matchup in the contest. Fernando Torres, as shown against Manchester United and Chelsea, is one of the most clinical finishers of the modern era. Rarely does a chance go begging: wide or over.
A Torres shot 99 percent of the time seemingly forces the goalkeeper to work and 99 percent of that goalkeeping is redundant. The ball is in the net.
Keeping Torres quiet is a tall order, as he is quick, fleet-footed, and able to manoeuvre in a yard of space, even trying to keep him quiet like Drogba fails. Torres gets up, hungrier than ever to score.
However, John Terry has not been placed in the FIFPro World XI for the past four years for nothing, and alongside either Alex or Carvalho, is very good at snuffing out danger.
In tandem with Ballack, the Blues best chance is to attempt to smother the service to Torres, with the second defender as a stalling tactic to Torres’ progress when he gets the ball to allow Cech to set.