In Liverpool’s most important game since the last one, the Reds face Chelsea at Anfield on Sunday looking for a 12th straight Premier League victory as they close in on a historic league title.
The club’s fans have barely had time to catch their breath following back-to-back heart-stopping 3-2 victories over Manchester City and then Norwich City, and now they’ll know that three more points here could leave them within touching distance of a remarkable triumph.
There has been much talk of Blues boss Jose Mourinho fielding a weakened side in preparation for the second leg of his side’s Champions League semi-final on Sunday, with owner Roman Abramovich reportedly backing the Portuguese’s plans, per The Telegraph. But Liverpool can rest assured that whatever lineup gets sent out at Anfield will be a formidable one, although the absences of John Terry and Petr Cech through injury are certainly boosts for the hosts.
So how will Liverpool play it, and what will be the key elements of the game?
Here, we’ve taken a look at the tale of the tape to find out.
Joe Allen Can Be Liverpool’s Midfield Maestro
In the absence of the suspended Jordan Henderson and the injured Daniel Sturridge, Brendan Rodgers was forced to alter things somewhat in the Norwich win, with Joe Allen and Lucas Leiva coming into midfield.
The early stages at Carrow Road were notable for Allen—usually a more conservative, “safe” player—getting forward into the box and joining in with attacks in a similar manner to what we’ve seen from Henderson this season.
One moment in particular stands out in this regard. With Lucas moved over to the right to win the ball back, Allen ends up busting into the box from an extremely deep position to latch on to a Philippe Coutinho pass and draw a good save from John Ruddy. The Welshman also came close to scoring with an effort from further out moments later.
Even if Sturridge is restored to the Reds’ starting lineup, it looks as though Allen’s midfield probing will again be useful here.
He played very well at Norwich, and if he can make those sorts of runs through what is likely to be an unfamiliar Chelsea defence, he can wreak havoc on the visitors and play a crucial role for his side.
Can Chelsea Keep Up with Raheem Sterling?
Liverpool have been known for their fast starts to matches all season. Recently, they have largely come about because of the work of just one teenager.
Raheem Sterling scored six minutes into the Manchester City win. He followed that up with a goal after just four minutes at Norwich and then an assist for Luis Suarez seven minutes later.
Both the Manchester City goal and the Norwich assist showcased something the youngster has managed to develop rapidly in these past few months: his movement off the ball and his ability to pin opponents on the back foot.
Against Manchester City, he owed a lot of credit to Suarez for his initial strength and his ability to play a precise through ball, but Sterling took up an incredibly intelligent position between Pablo Zabaleta and Vincent Kompany before racing on to the pass and scoring.
In the Norwich match, it was Jon Flanagan who provided the pass for Sterling in the buildup to Suarez’s goal, but the manner in which Sterling lost his marker Bradley Johnson simply told the full-back where to pass the ball. Once he got it, his assist for Suarez was sublime.
The teenager is in such good form and so high on confidence right now that the ball is likely to follow wherever he goes. You can expect him to look to pin Chelsea back with his clever movement and searing pace frequently throughout the afternoon.
Liverpool’s Defence Will Look to Keep It Narrow Against Mohamed Salah
Of course, the amount of conjecture regarding the Chelsea team selection makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly how they’ll play things at Anfield, but you can be certain that one-time Liverpool target Mohamed Salah will play at Anfield, as he is cup-tied for the Champions League.
The Egyptian will perhaps be the one player in the visiting side able to offer them genuine width, and as we saw when the Blues were defeated by Sunderland last weekend, denying Chelsea that width can often go a long way toward beating them.
As we see from the first image, this ultimately unsuccessful Blues breakaway was thwarted because the two Sunderland full-backs had stuck tight to their men, squeezing them to within the width of the penalty area and allowing the centre-backs to eventually clear.
In the next two images, another Chelsea attack comes to nothing after it is left to the full-backs to create the width when Salah is forced inside.
The former Basel man might not have signed for Liverpool in January, but if the Reds can handle him—and you have to assume Rodgers knows his game inside out—Chelsea could be nullified and the hosts might take a huge step toward glory.