In the latest of a series of pulsating clashes between the Premier League’s title contenders, Chelsea host Liverpool on Sunday, looking to create a gap between themselves and their fourth-placed opponents. Fresh from defeat to Manchester City on Boxing Day, Liverpool are in danger of going from being top at Christmas to being six points off of the pace at the turn of the year. Just five points separate the Premier League’s top five sides, and defeat for either team could see them end the year in fifth. Here are three of the key battles that could decide this top-of-the-table clash.
Luis Suarez vs. John Terry and Gary Cahill
As predictable as it is, we start with Luis Suarez. The top scorer in Europe—with 19 goals—Suarez has scored 44 percent of Liverpool’s goals this season despite missing the first five games of the season through suspension. The Uruguayan has only failed to score in three of his last 10 appearances, and all three of those games ended in defeat—the only games that Liverpool lost in that period.
The last game that Suarez failed to score in that didn’t end in a Liverpool defeat was the 2-2 draw with Newcastle on October 19th, whilst Liverpool haven’t won a match without Suarez scoring since the third game of the season, which was the point he was banned.
Whilst Liverpool have other players that can threaten, Suarez is far and away their main threat and has scored a goal every 61 minutes in the Premier League this season.
John Terry has experienced an Indian summer this season, and has been a mainstay in the Chelsea defence. Alongside him, Jose Mourinho must pick between David Luiz and Gary Cahill to help their captain shackle Suarez. Better tactical discipline means that Cahill is likely to get the nod. Suarez is not blessed with electric pace, but relies upon speed of thought and good movement. He has a knack of finding pockets of space within the penalty area, evident in the fact that 45 percent of the 42 chances that he has created have come from within the box, alongside 63 percent of his goals.
Such clinical finishing and movement mean that Luiz is unlikely to be chosen, given his tendency to wander. His heat map from the Boxing Day win over Swansea shows the areas that he picked up, and is far less disciplined than Cahill’s from his last game (shown below). Liverpool’s front three troubled Manchester City with their movement and interplay and would ruthlessly punish such positional naivety.
Eden Hazard vs Glen Johnson
It speaks volumes of Eden Hazard’s form this season that he is the only one of Chelsea’s batch of attacking midfield players that is near enough guaranteed a starting place in the side. Nominally starting from the left-hand side of Chelsea’s 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formations, Hazard roams across the midfield.
He has created 46 chances—more than any other player in the league—and half of these have come from central areas just outside the penalty box. Manchester City got a lot of joy in such areas between Liverpool’s midfield and defensive lines on Boxing Day, and Liverpool must defend this area better if they are to get anything from Chelsea.
Hazard has also completed the most take-ons in the Premier League, successfully going past his man on 65 occasions. Such ability to take opponents out of the game in a flash could prove to be even more important if Sunday’s match is as open as Liverpool’s game at the Etihad was. Whilst Chelsea are not as gung-ho as City are—shown in their 0-0 bore draw with Arsenal—the game is likely to be more end-to-end than recent games at Stamford Bridge have been, and Hazard’s quick feet could prove invaluable on the break.
The man tasked with stopping Hazard will be England right-back Glen Johnson. The former Chelsea man has made 29 tackles this season, second behind Lucas Leiva at Liverpool, at a fairly impressive success rate of 62 percent.
An experienced, pacey defender, Johnson will provide Hazard with a stiff test. Equally at home going forward, Johnson may also increase the defensive duties of Hazard by providing width for Liverpool’s attacks on the right, and the matchup between the two is one of a number of key battles.
Fernando Torres vs Martin Skrtel
A quick look at the respective sides and you would be forgiven for thinking that Luis Suarez was the man that had transferred for a British record fee of £50 million. However, as Chelsea fans are constantly reminded, that record is held by his misfiring predecessor Fernando Torres. Jose Mourinho has not been shy about the fact that if he were to swap strikers with Liverpool or Manchester City then his team would be clear at the top of the table, but as it is he will have to make do with Torres on Sunday.
The former Liverpool player has scored only two Premier League goals so far this season, but could prove the difference between the two sides if he were to step up and produce the kind of performance that he so frequently did for Liverpool. His finest hour this season came in a match-winning performance over Manchester City at Stamford Bridge in which he produced a goal and an assist in a 2-1 win.
If the game does prove to be more open than Chelsea’s recent games then it could suit Torres, given his obvious frustration as a lone striker playing with his back to goal. At his best when he has defenders backpeddling, the Torres of old would have relished a matchup with Martin Skrtel. The Slovakian defender has been a rock in the air and has won 69 percent of his headed duels, but is slower over the ground and suspect on positioning. Manchester City’s ambition left gaps for Torres to prosper in earlier in the season, and he will be hoping that Liverpool produce a similar kind of game on Sunday. If they do, then their old player could be a key player for their opponents.