5 points clear, 3 games to go. Automatic qualification for the Champions League group stages secured, the Reds can now solely focus on the bonus of winning the title. The next game against Chelsea at Anfield on Sunday afternoon could be treated as a one-off, knock-out game now. If the Reds prevail, Chelsea’s chance at the title will be done and it will be a two-horse race. If it’s a draw, Chelsea’s hopes have an almost impossible task to overcome Manchester City and Liverpool.
City have kept up the pressure on the Reds with a routine 3-1 win over West Bromwich Albion on Monday, and if the Citizens win their game in hand, they will come within 3 points of Liverpool with a slightly superior goal difference.
Chelsea’s goalless draw at Atletico Madrid can only be a good scoreline for Brendan Rodgers and his side. With all to play for in the second leg on Wednesday, Jose Mourinho will definitely have more than one eye on that fixture, as he chases that one trophy he could not win as Chelsea manager, that one trophy even Roberto Di Matteo won as Chelsea boss. He might even see the Premier League as slightly out of sight now, and with injuries and European suspensions mounting, Mourinho’s team selection will be one key aspect to watch come Sunday. He has threatened to play a B-team, but surely his competitiveness will see him still want to win the game, and play a side he thinks will be able to do a job at Anfield without compromising their second leg.
Petr Cech has been ruled out for the rest of the season, meaning Mark Schwarzer will come in for his third game in a week. After fumbling for Sunderland’s equaliser last Saturday, Schwarzer looked calm and steady as he replaced Cech on 16 minutes against Atletico. The loss of Cech will be huge for Chelsea and Mourinho might want to bolster his defensive ranks to lend more cover for Schwarzer, regardless of how experienced the Australian goalkeeper is.
Skipper John Terry will also miss the rest of the season with an ankle injury. With Mourinho looking for some stability at the back, he will probably go back to his usual back four. Cesar Azpilicueta would move across and replace Ashley Cole at left-back, with Branislav Ivanovic returning at right-back. David Luiz shuffling back alongside this season’s best defender Gary Cahill. Even with Terry out, Cahill certainly has the presence and maturity to guide the Blues’ defence.
These defensive reshuffles and the loss of two of their core back five will benefit Rodgers. He should look to start fast as usual and at pace against Chelsea’s back four and goalkeeper, before they have the chance to settle down at the cauldron that will be Anfield.
Frank Lampard and Jon Obi Mikel picked up bookings in the first leg of the semi finals, and will miss the second leg on Wednesday, meaning one or both might be used at Anfield, probably to give the legs of Ramires a rest. Cup-tied Nemanja Matic will definitely come back to figure alongside Mikel, especially if Mourinho goes for that extra protection mentioned earlier.
The one that got away for Rodgers – Mohamed Salah – is also cup-tied and will most probably start on the wing as well, with second-half substitute Andre Schurrle on the other flank. The fresh legs of Oscar in behind Fernando Torres – who barely got a kick in the first leg – will provide a threat for the Reds defence.
With Chelsea disciplined in defence, looking bare in midfield and lacking an edge upfront with their misfiring strikers plus the missing Eden Hazard, they will definitely look to set-pieces to hurt the Reds. The height of Luiz, Ivanovic, Cahill, Matic, Mikel and possibly Demba Ba in the box will prove a lot to handle for Liverpool’s defenders. So will Rodgers opt for the aggressiveness of Mamadou Sakho or the elegant guile of Daniel Agger?
Rodgers has a relatively small side, with only Martin Skrtel, Steven Gerrard and Agger/Sakho providing any sort of real height in the box. He will want the Reds to avoid giving away any needless freekicks and corners. Nevertheless, Rodgers will probably opt for Agger given Sakho’s below par showing against Norwich City. Agger’s ability on the ground defensively will be beneficial against Torres and Oscar, and on the ball he will be more comfortable playing the ball out and helping the Reds control possession better.
Rodgers will need to once again get his tactics spot on against his previous mentor and the perennial tactical mastermind of recent times. Having played a slightly new formation against Norwich, lining up a sort of Christmas tree 4-3-2-1 formation with Raheem Sterling and Philipp Coutinho hovering behind Luis Suarez, it will be interesting how he lines up against Chelsea.
Blues’ old boy Daniel Sturridge should be back and will yet again hope to prove a point against his previous employers having sat out the return fixture at Stamford Bridge in December. 30-goal marksman Luis Suarez has not scored against City, Arsenal or Chelsea yet this season, so Sunday would be a good time to register his first against top 4 opposition. Sterling and Coutinho behind will look to get forward but will also need to be aware of their defensive responsibilities, especially to cover Gerrard and one of Joe Allen or Lucas Leiva.
Simon Mignolet will also want to recover from his latest howler at Norwich, on the back of legendary former Reds goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar’s comments on him being the Reds’ weak link, and further redeem himself for his Stamford Bridge howler which led to Samuel Eto’o scoring what turned out to be the winner that night. Glen Johnson is another one who performed poorly against Norwich and also another one who will want to prove yet again to his previous employers about what they missed out upon.
Many of the first eleven have much to prove against Chelsea. But none will have as much as stake as skipper Steven Gerrard, who twice declined the chance to join the Blues – where he would surely have won a few titles under Mourinho – to stay at his beloved hometown club. This campaign may be one of his last of his career, and this title challenge may represent his last realistic chance at the shot of the title. He is so close, yet still so far. Should Gerrard guide the Reds to another Anfield victory, against Mourinho’s Blues, he will be that one step closer to realising his dream – and the dream of every Liverpool fan of the modern era.