Saturday, October 25, 2008

Clash of Top Table - Blues Vs Reds

Chelsea host Liverpool in the undisputed blockbuster of this weekend’s English Premier League matchups. Only goal difference separates the two teams at the top of the table, as both sides remain unbeaten with six wins each from eight games. A victory either way could prove critical in the rival clubs’ title ambitions come May.
Beautiful Blues
Luiz Felipe Scolari’s arrival at Stamford Bridge during the summer was met with the instant expectation of a dramatic upswing in the quality of Chelsea’s football. The former Brazil boss was handed the daunting task of transforming the Blues from an ultra-effective yet extremely turgid outfit into the most attractive and marketable side in Europe, upon the order of Roman Abramovich, the club’s Russian billionaire owner.
Scolari has not disappointed. Chelsea aren’t just topping the table; they’re blowing teams away with the sort of style usually reserved for South America’s international superpowers. The summer recruitment of Deco, which garnered mixed reviews at the time, set the Londoners on the path to rediscovering the “sexy football” popularized by Ruud Gullit during the 1990s. Even though the Portugal playmaker has spent several weeks on the sidelines through injury, his symbolic impact has arguably been as great as his stunning early season displays. Flying fullback Jose Bosingwa, another Selecao regular, also joined during the summer, significantly shifting the squad’s emphasis in the direction of flair rather than pragmatism.
Nevertheless, the new manager has stressed that results come first, even if that means momentarily halting the samba revolution to scrap out a Mourinhoesque 1-0 win when required. Results over the last few seasons would suggest that Sunday’s game will see grinding, gritty performance from both sides. However, Liverpool’s recent form hints that a rare gem may in fact be on the cards.
Comeback kings
Liverpool’s 3-2 win against Wigan Athletic last weekend was their fourth come-from-behind triumph in the Premier League this season. The Kop have been forced to endure a torrent of last-gasp winners as their side have been left in the lurch by indifferent first-half showings. And while the level of performance has been inconsistent, the accumulation of results sees Rafael Benitez’s men gaining momentum in the title race. The football may not always be as pretty as Chelsea’s, but the outcome has been the same as the Merseysiders seem to have recaptured that ominous win-at-all-costs mentality that served them so well in the past.
Perhaps the greatest criticism of Liverpool’s league efforts under Benitez has centered on their inability to hold their own against the rest of the “Big Four.” Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea have all dominated the Reds in domestic proceedings over the past four years, but again, a crucial shift in the collective psyche at Anfield is taking place. Last month’s victory in the Northwest Derby – Liverpool’s first in league play since 2004 – served as a statement of intent; a win at the Bridge would catapult the five-time European champs into genuine title contention for the first time in well over a decade.
They face an uphill task, to say the least. No English club has beaten Chelsea on their own turf since March 2004 – 86 games and counting without suffering a home defeat. Hence, a Liverpool win on Sunday would send shockwaves across the country and force the football-following public to acknowledge the reawakening of a sleeping giant.
Team news
Chelsea – The Blues’ form is all the more impressive when one considers their lengthy list of absentees. Michael Ballack, Michael Essien and Didier Drogba are all out, while England duo Joe Cole and Ashley Cole are also battling injury. On the plus side, Deco is set to make his first league start since mid-September, while key defender Ricardo Carvalho should line up alongside the also fit-again John Terry. Juliano Belletti is an outside chance to start in midfield after his impressive display against Middlesbrough last weekend.
Liverpool – The major absence for the Reds is, of course, Fernando Torres. The Spain striker suffered a hamstring tear while on World Cup duty and will remain on the sidelines this weekend. He is not Rafa Benitez’s only concern, though. Robbie Keane hobbled off the Vicente Calderon pitch on Wednesday with a groin complaint and will be subjected to a late fitness test. Expect Dirk Kuyt, who netted twice against Wigan, to reclaim a starting spot. Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso were also substituted against Atletico Madrid, but they are both expected to feature on Sunday.
Players to watch
Chelsea – It’s hard to choose a standout from Stamford Bridge at the moment, but keep an eye on the diminutive Deco. The Brazilian-Portuguese star was majestic during his early outings before injury struck him down. It might be harsh to pin Chelsea’s hopes on his shoulders given he has just returned to action, but there is no doubting that the former Barcelona man is a born match-winner. On the flipside, an anonymous performance from Deco could be equally telling.
Liverpool – Xabi Alonso has re-established himself as an indispensable member of Liverpool’s midfield after coming so close to leaving the club during the summer. The Basque playmaker is the sort of footballer who can take charge of a game without seeming to do anything too spectacular, and his ability to control the tempo and spread the play will be vital if the Reds wish to claim three points on Sunday. All that depends on whether or not he plays, of course; we cannot discount the possibility that he will be “rested” despite an excellent showing against Atletico in midweek.
It’s an incredibly tough one to call. Both sides are high on confidence and possess plenty of quality, particularly in the middle of the park. Liverpool will be eager to get off to a flier given their recent trend of conceding the lead early, but even if they go behind again you wouldn’t bet against them equalizing at the very least. The visitors will miss Torres, as they don’t quite have a Nicolas Anelka waiting in the wings. It could be a tight affair reminiscent of the pair’s European encounters, but there are enough creative players in both lineups capable of breaking the game open. … Chelsea 1, Liverpool 1

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