Sunday, October 26, 2008

Match Preview: Chelsea vs. LiverpooL

Chelsea host Liverpool in the undisputed blockbuster of this weekend’s Premier League match-ups. 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.

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’ popularised 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 full-back Jose Bosingwa, another Seleccao 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 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.

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, and 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 centred 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 North West 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.


Both clubs played in the Champions League during the week, with Chelsea securing a 1-0 win over Roma while Liverpool were held to a 1-1 draw in a controversial yet uninspiring encounter with Atletico Madrid. Both sides triumphed in the previous round of the Premier League: the Blues thumped Middlesbrough 5-0; the Reds, as previously mentioned, battled to victory against Wigan.


Oct 22 vs. Roma (H) 1-0 WIN
Oct 18 vs. Middlesbrough (A) 5-0 WIN
Oct 5 vs. Aston Villa (H) 2-0 WIN
Oct 1 vs. CFR Cluj (A) 0-0 DRAW
Sep 27 vs. Stoke City (A) 2-0 WIN


Oct 22 vs. Atletico Madrid (A) 1-1 DRAW
Oct 18 vs. Wigan Athletic (H) 3-2 WIN
Oct 5 vs. Manchester City (A) 3-2 WIN
Oct 1 vs. PSV Eindhoven (H) 3-1 WIN
Sep 21 vs. Everton (A) 2-0 WIN



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.

Possible XI (4-3-3): Cech – Bosingwa, Terry, Carvalho, Bridge – Mikel, Lampard, Deco – Kalou, Anelka, Malouda.


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 Atleti, but they are both expected to feature on Sunday.

Possible XI (4-2-3-1): Reina – Arbeloa, Carragher, Agger, Dossena – Mascherano, Alonso – Babel, Gerrard, Riera – Kuyt.



It’s hard to choose a stand-out 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.


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.

Sun Shines On Liverpool Manager Rafa Benitez Ahead Of Chelsea Clash

The autumn sun caressed Liverpool's training ground on Friday, but other factors must have conspired in the good humour of Rafa Benitez.

It was, you appreciated on reflection, a good time to be Liverpool manager. True, Benitez had just heard Fernando Torres confirm unavailability through injury for the match at Chelsea, but the team are unbeaten in the Premier League with confidence buttressed for the trip to London by the knowledge that they have beaten Manchester United at Anfield.

Even the credit crunch may be working for Liverpool, because speculation that Tom Hicks and George Gillett will be forced to sell the club is increasingly plausible and, should the crown prince of Dubai prove the buyer, Benitez would have the stability he craves, probably with a new contract as endorsement.

So come, friendly crunch? There being no Betjeman among the ranks of Liverpool's support, perhaps Roger McGough could pen a poem of hope that the Americans will settle their debts and go back across the Atlantic to a less complicated sporting environment.

Benitez again declined to discuss his wishes in detail, smiling when someone pointed out that he had left Valencia for Liverpool in 2004 because the Spanish club waited until he had won the Uefa Cup before renewing his contract - "I understand your question'' - but leaving it there.

Of the takeover reports concerning Sheikh Mohammed, he said: "When things are just rumours, we have to concentrate on football. Then it's easier for the players to focus.'' But stability, he added, was "a good thing for any club''. Especially one obliged to challenge Chelsea without it.

Will we ever (I wonder) again be able to look at a Premier League football match plain and simple? Today's event at Stamford Bridge certainly deserves it, for Liverpool have not even scored there on Premier business in nearly five years since Bruno Cheyrou secured victory on their final visit under Gerard Houllier, and yet a surprising number of people think this might be the day when Chelsea's unbeaten run in the League finally comes to an end after 86 matches.

I wonder if it might be just a shade early in the season. While both clubs are unbeaten thus far, Luiz Felipe Scolari's Chelsea have been closer to peak form than Benitez's side, whose most impressive results have featured recoveries to beat Wigan and Manchester City. A draw would surely delight Liverpool. They may not have been champions for a while, but they do know the difference between a marathon and a sprint.

Their supporters, led by Steven Gerrard, have been waiting since 1990 to celebrate a domestic title but at least they have a manager who knows how; Benitez guided Valencia to two Spanish championships.

He can see steady progress, moreover, towards the required standard. Mention of Pepe Reina's development into one of the country's top goalkeepers got me thinking about how the current Liverpool might measure up to the Valencia of Benitez, who had the bleached but excellent Santiago Canizares in goal, Roberto Ayala shoring up the defence much as Jamie Carragher does (perhaps with less fuss, but the comparison holds), a solid central midfield pairing in Ruben Baraja and David Albelda (Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano) and Pablo Aimar off the front (where Gerrard likes to wreak his own havoc).

Although I found this mental doodling fun, Benitez was less interested in individuals than the character of his teams.

"I was at Valencia for three years,'' he said (they won the title in 2002 and 2004). "The first year was good, but the third year was fantastic. We were very, very solid, attacking and defending very well. It was a team with a fantastic balance and that was the key.

"Everyone had absolute confidence in everyone else. Every year, I think, this team at Liverpool gets closer to that. We have plenty of room for improvement - but every year it gets better.''

And confidence had been so high since the quashing of Manchester United that he would hardly need to mention that mid-September feat during the build-up to Sunday's game.

"For us,'' said Benitez, "beating United was really important because last season we were not winning these big games and everyone was saying 'OK, you can be close - but against the top sides you can't quite do it'. So this was a positive message to the team. And now we'll see what happens at Chelsea.''

Did he miss the mind-games with Jose Mourinho? "No.'' He preferred to exchange football thoughts with Scolari.”That's the way to do things.''

Meanwhile, down in Surrey, there was reciprocal respect, Scolari acknowledging the threat to his ambitions posed by Benitez's team.

"I believe they are thinking more about the Premier League than previously,'' the Chelsea manager declared. "Many times in the past, I have heard and read that Liverpool are concentrating on the Champions League. But maybe now they have a more balanced squad, one in which Benitez has more confidence. Maybe they have grown up.''

Asked if he would, like Benitez, be granted four years at his club without a domestic title (in fairness to Benitez, he has guided Liverpool to two Champions League finals, one of which was won), Scolari replied that he had only two years on his contract. "I have two years to win this competition - this year and next.''

Stability, I suppose, is in the eye of the beholder, but, for the moment, Scolari and Roman Abramovich seem to be getting along just fine. It is Benitez's mission to sow a seed of doubt.

Riera Ready For Second Chance

Albert Riera is determined to prove himself in the Premier League at the second time of asking.

The Spanish winger made little impression in England during a loan spell at Manchester City in 2006, but rediscovered his form on returning to his homeland with Espanyol.

International honours and a deadline day move to Liverpool duly followed, with Riera adamant he is a more mature player than the one which failed to ignite at Eastlands.

An impressive start to life on Merseyside bodes well for the future, although the 26-year-old is well aware of the many challenges which lie ahead.

"What I have learned in recent years is that any footballer can succeed in the Premier League if he has talent and he is also prepared to back that up with hard work, effort and discipline. That is the secret to foreigners succeeding here, and this time I came with no illusions," Riera said.

"When I was younger, I just thought I could walk on to the field and play. You can't. Look at how hard Fernando Torres works at Liverpool. He wouldn't have had to do that in Spain. It's incredible.

"I am a more technical player now and also more mature. My pride won't let me fail this time."

Riera has joined a burgeoning contingent of Spaniards at Anfield but insists that manager Rafa Benitez shows no favouritism towards his countrymen.

"I am at Liverpool because of a personal request from Rafa Benitez," he added.

"He is key for me, but for Rafa there is no difference between Spanish, English or other players.

"Some people believe it is an advantage to be Spanish if you play for Liverpool. That is not true. All Rafa asks is that we all work and behave the same.

"Look at Torres. He is one of the best strikers in the world. I have suffered from his goals in the Spanish league and I am happy that for once he is on my side! But he works as hard as anybody else."

Liverpool Want Title - Scolari

Luiz Felipe Scolari is not surprised by Liverpool's unbeaten start because he believes winning the Premier League is their top priority.

His Liverpool counterpart Rafael Benitez is now in his fifth season as Anfield manager but despite winning the Champions League during his tenure, the Reds have still not put the league trophy in the cabinet since 1990.

But Scolari, whose side face Liverpool in a top-of-the-table clash at Stamford Bridge on Sunday lunch time, believes that ending the famine is now the top target for Benitez.

"Liverpool are thinking more about the Premier League more than at any other time," said Scolari.

"I read many times that Liverpool think more about Champions League than Premier League. I don't think that is the case now. They are thinking about winning the Premier League.

"This season, they play more and think more about Premier League than in the other seasons.

"They have a balance and a good squad. They have more confidence and they have improved. The league is more difficult than maybe some of the other competitions. There is no game in the league that you will think you will win easy. It is a difficult league."

Benitez remains in charge at Anfield despite the lack of a league title but, given Chelsea's propensity for changing their managers, it is unlikely that Scolari will be given the same amount of time to win it.

Scolari has a two-year contract with the Blues but insists that there is nothing in writing that says he must win any of the four major competitions they chase every year.

When asked whether he would be handed another deal if he fails to win the league during the term of his contract, Scolari replied: "I don't know, I have a contract for two years only. Maybe I stay here for three, four or five years.

"Maybe they give me another two years in the future. I have two years to win competitions. I expect to win competitions.

"When I arrived here in Chelsea I said we need to play game by game to win. I don't know which competition we will reach the final of but we need to try and reach them all.

"It is possible to go through the season without losing. There are four competitions and we have four chances of winning something.

"If Chelsea win the league I would be happy for sure but I would be happy if we won the Carling Cup.

"I am not only thinking about the Premier League. Chelsea need to win a competition.

"We are in a good situation in the Champions League and the Carling Cup. We are also in a good position in the Premier League but there is a long way to go."

Absence Of Torres Hampers Benitez's Goal At The Bridge

When the crunch comes for Chelsea against Liverpool, it is usually the European Cup at stake. For four successive seasons the clubs have come together in the Champions' League, usually at a crucial stage. Last spring was the first time Chelsea had had the better of those matches, which meant that Jose Mourinho, who had departed by then, never did.

In the Premier League, it has been a different story, Rafael Benitez having recorded a single victory in eight meetings, by 2-0 at Anfield two seasons ago, when the visitors, short of defenders (in every sense), were demolished by Peter Crouch. At Stamford Bridge, where they return this afternoon, Liverpool have never even managed a goal in the League during Benitez's time. Today they are second among equals, though only on goal difference, having matched Chelsea's start to the campaign point for point and suggesting that at last there may be a real title challenge within them.

Not that the manager dares say as much at this early stage, even if he is prepared to acknowledge the improvement suggested by inflicting a League defeat at last on Manchester United a month ago. Anfield celebrated that day as if the championship itself had been won for the first time since 1990. If it is to be, then Liverpool's record against the other members of the big four has to improve drastically.

"Too early to talk about the title," was Benitez's mantra when discussing the match on Friday. He did admit, however, that points won and lost in these critical meetings of the leading clubs – if Hull City will excuse the shorthand – can be decisive. So beating United in only the fourth game of the season had mathematical as well as psychological value. "It was really important for us, because last season we were not winning these games so to beat United was a very, very positive message for the team," he said. "Now we will see what happens against Chelsea, but at least the team can approach these games with confidence."

They would be heading south even more confidently if Fernando Torres, scorer of 33 goals in his first season of English football, was a playing member of the party. His absence, and the knowledge that injury could also keep Robbie Keane out, must increase the possibility of one of the low-scoring, frequently dull encounters that the two teams tend to play at the Bridge, in contrast to Anfield, where the Kop rarely need to chant "Attack, attack, attack". Whether Keane or Dirk Kuyt (the more prolific scorer of the two at present) is the central striker, Steven Gerrard is likely to be behind him, as Benitez seeks the security of having both Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso holding in midfield in his favored 4-2-3-1 formation.

Hugely frustrated as Liverpool are by Torres's injury, sustained on international duty, they must acknowledge that Chelsea's list of absentees is the more debilitating. Joe Cole, Michael Essien, Michael Ballack and Didier Drogba would be a fair old outfield quartet in a five-a-side team, yet none can turn out today.

At least Ricardo Carvalho is back alongside John Terry in central defence. It is not quite correct to describe the Portuguese as Chelsea's unsung hero, since the supporters regularly put his name to song in appreciation of his formidable qualities as a tackler and marker. As one of Portugal's stalwarts, Carvalho also came to appreciate the worth of Luiz Felipe Scolari some time before his current club-mates. "He's a strong man, tough, a fantastic coach and he likes to play to win," he said after the 1-0 victory over Roma in midweek. "He's still learning about the Premier League, a different competition for him. He likes to have the ball and pass the ball, and to be a little bit more adventurous.

"As a player you have to find the moment when to go, when to play," added Carvalho. "He likes to work the ball and every day he thinks about this, to get possession and get the moment to be dangerous."

Someone less loyal to Mourinho, who brought Carvalho to England with him from Porto, might have emphasized the more positive approach with which the Brazilian is delighting everyone at Stamford Bridge, including, most importantly, Roman Abramovich. Jose Bosingwa, another Portuguese, and Ashley Cole or Wayne Bridge on the left, have gained most from it in their freedom to attack down the flanks almost as wing-backs, contributing to the 19 Chelsea goals in eight League games.

Yet they have conceded only three. Those traveling to London today with hope in their heart would be more optimistic of turning the statistics round if only they had Torres on the pitch.

Liverpool Join Busquets Race

The autumn sun caressed Liverpool's training ground on Friday, but other factors must have conspired in the good humour of Rafa Benitez. Liverpool have joined the rapidly growing list of clubs interested in signing Sergio Busquets, with Barca's latest prodigy attracting unprecedented levels of interest.

Following on from the news that Arsenal and Juventus are seriously considering making an approach for Sergio Busquets, it has emerged that Liverpool are the latest club in awe of the midfielder.

The young midfielder has only played six league games at senior level, but already it appears as though all of Europe is after him. Off contract at the end of the season, clubs will soon be able to negotiate with Busquets, and it seems that money is no barrier. Liverpool and Milan are both reportedly ready to offer the youngster double what he is currently on, an enticing prospect for even the most loyal of players.

All of this could be prevented, of course, if Busquets accepts Barca's impending new contract offer. However, early talks between Txiki Begiristain and Josep Maria Orobitg, Busquet's representative, have hit a stumbling block over the financial issue. The midfielder has re-iterated his loyalty to Barca, however, which should provide a strong basis for further negotiations.

Given Busquet's famous heritage (his father Carles played 79 games for Barca), the club will be loathe to lose him on a free transfer at the end of the season, a realistic prospect if contract talks do not advance soon.

Reds Stars To Follow Rafa?

Liverpool's star recruits could leave the club if manager Rafael Benitez does not secure an improved contract, according to the News of the World.

Speculation has arisen in recent weeks concering Benitez's situation at Anfield. He was promised a new deal earlier this year, but the club's American owners are yet to follow up on that proposal.

The word around Merseyside is that the Spaniard's patience is beginning to wear thin, as he is uncertain of whether or not he has the full backing of Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

The more time passes without a contract on the table, the more likely it will become that Benitez will take matters into his own hands and leave Liverpool.

The former Valencia boss has no dearth of suitors; Juventus have supposedly highlighted him as their top target to replace the under-fire Claudio Ranieri, while Real Madrid have regularly been linked with the 48-year-old over the past two seasons.

And his departure, if and when it comes, could well see a host of first-teamers quit the Kop in protest and follow their wronged manager wherever he may roam.

Fernando Torres is the most significant name mentioned among the potential leavers. The 24-year-old has been a Liverpool fan since his days at Atletico Madrid, but he is one of those expected to support Benitez if push comes to shove.

Pepe Reina, Javier Mascherano, Martin Skrtel, Dirk Kuyt and Albert Riera also thought to be among Rafa's loyalists. Such big-name departures would crippled the Reds, especially as they have just begun to make headway in the Premier League.

Benitez currently earns £3.5million per year, just over half what his counterpart this afternoon, Chelsea's Luiz Felipe Scolari, is paid.

Javier Mascherano: England Must Build Team Around Steven Gerrard

Javier Mascherano last night gave Frank Lampard a massive thumbs-down by telling Fabio Capello to build his England team around Steven Gerrard.

The £18million Argentinian is convinced if England are to be a success on the world stage Capello should shape the future around Gerrard - and NOT Lampard.

Enforcer Mascherano's stance is sure to add spice to today's massive Stamford Bridge clash between the England duo as Premier League table-toppers Chelsea and Liverpool collide.

In recent seasons Liverpool's title dreams have been over by this stage with Chelsea and Manchester United showing a ruthless streak from the off.

This time, though, Rafa Benitez has guided Liverpool into a strong position and having beaten United at Anfield, a win at Chelsea would give them their first proper title shout in a staggering 18 years.

And Mascherano has no doubts Gerrard is the man who can lead Liverpool and England to glory.

"If you have a player like Gerrard then you need to make a team around him," he said.

"I can't see Lampard in every training session but from what I see and know about Gerrard I think he is the best. He's the most complete player in England.

"He can play in front, wide, in the middle and can defend. And he can score big goals. He can do a lot of functions for the team.

"Stevie gives a lot of options to the manager and that is why he is the best - he is the most complete player.

"Steve is also a real leader in the dressing room and on the pitch."

For all Mascherano's confidence in Gerrard, the tough Argentinian knows this is crunch time for a Liverpool side desperate to join the elite band of Premier League winners - and they want revenge over Chelsea for last season's Champions League semi-final knock-out.

"Everyone wants to play this game because we all know it will be a very good test for us - that is why we have been waiting for this game ever since we played United.

"We were very disappointed because that defeat at Chelsea meant we could not play the final against United in Moscow. Beating Manchester United was good for us. It gave us a lot of confidence.

"Then we had the Everton game and if we hadn't have won that everyone would have forgotten the United game. Now if we beat Chelsea maybe people will look at us in a different way."

Defensive rock Jamie Carragher agrees but he believes Chelsea are the best team in Europe - and comeback specialists Liverpool can't afford to let Luiz Felipe Scolari's men get in front today.

"That has always been a stand-out quality of United teams in the Nineties and you have to respect them for that and a fighting quality is something you need," said Carragher.

"But against a team like Chelsea you don't want to fall behind. They are on fire and look the best team in England.

"The football they are playing is as good as any in Europe but it is credit to us we are level on points with them.

"Getting a result there will give us more belief we can win the title but there is still a long way to go and United and Chelsea are still big favourites to win it."