With Manchester United’s surge to the top of the table, Liverpool have slipped suddenly to third place after carrying the lead into the New Year. Their form this month has been as average as the Red Devils’ has been electric, as they have yet to claim a single Premier League win in 2009.
Rafael Benitez’s men were on-course to rack up three points in midweek, until Lucas Leiva’s flailing foot felled Jason Koumas to gift Wigan Athletic a late equaliser from the penalty spot. It ended 1-1 at the JJB, and the Reds’ title tilt seems to be faltering fast. The manager is feeling the pressure, too, judging by his baffling post-match comments.
Thus, Sunday’s clash against Chelsea takes on extra significance, as defeat would see the Merseyside giants essentially drop out of the leading pack. It would also see them lose their unbeaten record against the rest of the ‘Big Four’ this season, a run which began with quite an important result in west London earlier in the campaign.
Stamford Bridge came tumbling down when Liverpool plundered a 1-0 win in October. It was the Blues’ first league loss at home since 2004, and a result which put the Scousers atop the table at their hosts’ expense.
From then on, the two teams intermittently stole pole position from each other for the first half of the season. But now both are on level pegging points-wise and hoping to oust United from their newly reclaimed perch, and Chelsea look the more likely to do it.
Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side are on the recovery trail after a near-disastrous holiday slump. Their 2-0 win against Middlesbrough on Wednesday was encouraging, and what better time to exact revenge on the Reds than when they (Liverpool) are enduring a malaise of their own?
Jan 28 Wigan Athletic 1-1 Liverpool (Premier League)
Jan 25 Liverpool 1-1 Everton (FA Cup)
Jan 19 Liverpool 1-1 Everton (Premier League)
Jan 10 Stoke City 0-0 Liverpool (Premier League)
Jan 03 Preston North End 0-2 Liverpool (FA Cup)
Jan 28 Chelsea 2-0 Middlesbrough (Premier League)
Jan 24 Chelsea 3-1 Ipswich Town (FA Cup)
Jan 17 Chelsea 2-1 Stoke City (Premier League)
Jan 14 Southend United 1-4 Chelsea (FA Cup)
Jan 11 Manchester United 3-0 Chelsea (Premier League)
Alvaro Arbeloa is still under an injury cloud, but the Spanish full-back is in the squad and could feature, but Jamie Carragher could slot in at right-back instead. Philipp Degen remains a long-term absentee.
Xabi Alonso, Albert Riera and Dirk Kuyt are all expected to reclaim their first-team spots after being rested for the stalemate in Wigan. That means Lucas, Yossi Benayoun and Ryan Babel should return to the bench. Daniel Agger has shaken off a calf problem and is back in contention.
Liverpool squad: Reina, Arbeloa, Skrtel, Agger, Hyypia, Carragher, Dossena, Aurelio, Benayoun, Babel, Alonso, Mascherano, Lucas, Gerrard, Riera, Torres, Kuyt, Keane, Cavalieri.
Ricardo Carvalho will be left at home for the trip to the North West, as the Portuguese defender continues to battle a hamstring problem. Michael Essien is still recovering from a knee problem picked up last year, while Joe Cole is out for the season.
On the bright side, Salomon Kalou – who scored both goals against Boro – has been declared fit despite pulling up sore after the clash with the Teessiders.
Chelsea squad: Cech, Hilario, Taylor, Ferreira, Bosingwa, Terry, Alex, Ivanovic, Mancienne, A Cole, Lampard, Ballack, Mikel, Deco, Kalou, Malouda, Drogba, Anelka, Stoch, Belletti.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
It was Xabi Alonso who did the damage in the reverse fixture, with his deflected strike, and the in-form Basque star could be crucial again. His composure and intelligence was sorely missed in midweek, as was his passing range. If Liverpool want to make use of their possession, this man must start.
Meanwhile, Frank Lampard will be attempting to drive Chelsea forward from the centre of the pitch. The England man is having another superb season, and yet some have criticised his influence – or lack thereof – in the really big games. Time for ‘Super Frank’ to stand up and be counted.