Liverpool v Chelsea Preview: Bring Your Own Stick

Most of you will be familiar with the history behind this matchup, if not check the feature over at the Telegraph, and more often than not the recent history has produced tight matches with little entertainment value though plenty of drama and hype. Jorge Valdano, former Real Madrid player and World Cup winner with Argentina, infamously referred to the 2007 clash between these two as “s**t hanging from a stick”. Liverpool coach Rafa Benitez took the first swing by calling Chelsea Roman Abramovich’s team. He went on to say that Chelsea’s style of play has not developed under Avram Grant and that they remain wedded to the attritional football favoured by José Mourinho, his predecessor.

Grant has been increasingly evasive and obdurate in answering interviewers questions (not that I can completely fault him…most interview questions on TV are banal). However, I’m going to skip all that sizzle and get right to the steak. Lineups and tactics.

Frank Lampard has declared himself available after being away on compassionate leave and Chelsea could also have Michael Ballack fit after he missed Thursday’s win away to Everton with a hamstring problem. This will be important as they will be without Ghanaian international Michael Essien, who has again been Chelsea’s MVP in my humble opinion.

Another worry for Chelsea is that Didier Drogba may yet miss out as he struggles to overcome a knee injury. Drogba did train this week but we’ll see at kickoff if he is fit to start the match. If Ballack and Drogba are unable to go, look for Grant to use Makelele in the centre of midfield and Nicolas Anelka up front.

Makelele has been used sparingly in the Premier League, but has been an essential part of their Champions League team, starting nine of their ten games and missing only the meaningless final group match against Valencia. If Grant goes with a more conservative lineup, he will use two holding midfielders, Obi Mikel lining up beside Makelele and run with a 4-2-3-1 formation with Lampard sitting in behind either Drogba or Anelka with Cole and Kalou running the flanks.

Possible Starting XI (4-1-2-2-1): Cech – Ferreira, Carvalho, Terry, A Cole – Makélélé – Ballack, Lampard – J Cole, Kalou – Anelka

For Liverpool, Steven Gerrard should be fit despite sitting out a weekend victory because of a neck injury. Gerrard has scored six goals in the competition this season, a tally only bettered by Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo who has scored seven times. Liverpool rested several other players at the weekend match with Fulham, so they should have a complete lineup to pick from. Guessing a Benitez lineup has gotten a bit less of a crapshoot but one can never be completely certain what he is going to throw out there. I’m not sure if Skrtel will replace Hyypia in defence but I think he should as he’s a little quicker and Chelsea have a number of pacy forwards.

Possible Starting XI (4-2-3-1): Reina – Arbeloa, Carragher, Skrtel, Aurélio – Mascherano, Alonso – Kuyt, Gerrard, Babel – Torres

Current CL form
Liverpool are undefeated in seven matches in the Champions League, since a 2-1 loss away to Besiktas in October 2007. The Reds have won their last four Champions League home matches, and have not been defeated at Anfield since October 2007, when Olympique Marseille pulled off a 1-0 upset.

Chelsea’s only defeat in 10 Champions League outings since their loss to Liverpool in last season’s semi-finals, was 2-1 in the opening leg of the quarter-final, away to Fenerbahce on 2 April.

Key Matchups:

Steven Gerrard v Claude Makelele
Makelele will be asked to stifle Gerrard and stopping him linking up with Fernando Torres; this could force Gerrard into wider positions where he is typically less effective. If Gerrard stays central, the game will get bogged down into a midfield battle of attrition, which is what has happened in the past when these sides have hooked up.

Javier Mascherano v Joe Cole
Cole likes to roam into the middle from the left wing and Mascherano will need to pick up his runs in order to shield his defenders. Where Chelsea may run into problems is when Cole switches inside there is no one obvious that will move out to the wing and stretch the defence so the possibility for the game to get bogged down in midfield increases.

I hate to say it but I suspect we’ll see a 1-1 draw if we are lucky. I don’t think we’re in for any caviar football today, both teams are going to pack a lunch, hunker down in midfield and scrap it out, much to the dismay of the neutral (and not so neutral) observers everywhere.

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