Sunday, October 04, 2009

Premier League Preview: Chelsea vs. Liverpool

This weekend's match-up between Chelsea and Liverpool is truly a battle of the titans - not just on the pitch, but also in the dugout.

For while the Premier League's second- and third-placed teams wrestle for the upper hand in the title race, their managers will be embroiled in a tactical tussle of similarly storied proportions.

Carlo Ancelotti and Rafael Benitez have twice faced each other in the final of the UEFA Champions League, and the ledger stands square at once triumph apiece - the Spaniard's Reds snatching a famous victory in Istanbul in 2005, the Italian's AC Milan outfit making amends in Athens two years later.

For both gaffers and their respective charges, this meeting marks their first opportunity this season to show whether they have what it takes to trump their fellow 'Big Four' clubs - and there are doubts as to whether either will rise to the occasion.

The Blues began the campaign in blistering fashion, setting the pace with six wins on the trot. That hot streak came to an icy end last weekend, however, when they fell 3-1 at Wigan Athletic; and the midweek 1-0 victory at APOEL Nicosia has hardly inspired confidence.

The men from Merseyside, meanwhile, endured a dodgy start - which included losses to Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa in their first three games - before embarking on a six-game winning run of their own (across all competitions), culminating in the 6-1 mauling of Hull City last Saturday.

But all that progress was halted on Tuesday when a Steven Jovetic-inspired Fiorentina eased past the Anfield giants in the Champions League, once more raising questions as to whether Benitez's squad - so dominant against the big boys last season - can cut it against competitive opposition.

Thus, it promises to be an intriguing contest as both the hosts and the visitors chase their best form. Chelsea will be hoping to avoid a repeat of their last league meeting at Stamford Bridge, when a deflected Xabi Alonso strike saw Liverpool end the London club's record unbeaten run at home.



Sep 30 APOEL 0-1 Chelsea (Champions League)
Sep 26 Wigan Athletic 3-1 Chelsea (Premier League)
Sep 23 Chelsea 1-0 Queens Park Rangers (League Cup)
Sep 20 Chelsea 3-0 Tottenham Hotspur (Premier League)
Sep 15 Chelsea 1-0 Porto (Champions League)


Sep 29 Fiorentina 2-0 Liverpool (Champions League)
Sep 26 Liverpool 6-1 Hull City (Premier League)
Sep 22 Leeds United 0-1 Liverpool (League Cup)
Sep 19 West Ham United 2-3 Liverpool (Premier League)
Sep 16 Liverpool 1-0 Debrecen (Champions League)



Henrique Hilario will start in goal, as Petr Cech is suspended following his straight red card for hauling down Hugo Rodallega at Wigan last week. John Obi Mikel is also out of action, while Michael Ballack, Daniel Sturridge and Alex are all doubts.

On the plus side, Didier Drogba will return in attack after being rested in midweek, and Joe Cole - just back after a lengthy spell on the sidelines - and Deco are both available.

Possible XI: Hilario, Bosingwa, Terry, Carvalho, A. Cole, Essien, Kalou, Malouda, Lampard, Drogba, Anelka.


Javier Mascherano missed the Champions League at Fiorentina with a minor hamstring problem, but he is expected to reclaim his place on Sunday. Fabio Aurelio deputised in midfield at the Stadio Artemio Franchi - but with Emiliano Insua in favour at left-back, the Brazilian may have to settle for a spot on the bench.

Danish defender Daniel Agger, who has been battling a back problem, could make the matchday squad after featuring for the reserves recently. Meanwhile, Andrea Dossena (groin) has joined fellow Italian Alberto Aquilani (ankle) in the treatment room.

Possible XI: Reina, Johnson, Carragher, Skrtel, Insua, Mascherano, Lucas, Kuyt, Gerrard, Benayoun, Torres.


Chelsea - Didier Drogba

The Ivorian striker is in stunning form, his partnership with Nicolas Anelka is fast blossoming into one of Europe's finest. Furthermore, his record against Liverpool is outstanding - Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel will not soon forget Drogba's efforts in both legs of last term's Champions League quarter-final.

Liverpool - Lucas Leiva

Whether or not Mascherano starts, it is Lucas who will have to step up if the Reds are to win the midfield battle. The Brazilian has improved markedly - especially in an attacking capacity - this term, but he has yet to show that he can take control and enforce against strong opposition. Will he shine, or will Xabi Alonso's absence be made more noticeable than ever before?

Glen Johnson Talks Up Significance Of Liverpool's Trip To Chelsea

Liverpool defender Glen Johnson believes that Sunday's encounter with championship rivals Chelsea will be "massive" with both clubs harbouring expectations of a Premier League title challenge.

Johnson, a former Chelsea player himself, joined the Reds from Portsmouth this summer and has produced a string of polished performances since his £18.5 million move.

Both sides head into this weekend's clash off the back of unconvincing Champions League performances, with Liverpool having lost 2-0 to Fiorentina while Chelsea narrowly edged past Apoel Nicosia 1-0 having lost to Wigan Athletic the previous Saturday.

Many players would see the opportunity to play against a former club as the perfect motivation to go out and prove a point although 25-year-old Johnson is adamant that he has nothing to prove when he returns to Stamford Bridge.

"It will be massive because you know Chelsea are going to be there or thereabouts at the end of the season and we'd like to think we will be too," he told

"They are doing well, but they have faults like anybody else, just as Wigan found out.

"It's going to be a massive game. I enjoy every minute that I put on a Liverpool shirt so it'll be nice to do it against one of the big teams.

"It is against an old club, but that's all behind me now and I'm just looking forward to doing the best I can for Liverpool now.

"I've got nothing to prove."

The England right-back went on to bemoan the performance against Fiorentina in midweek stating that his team-mates can't wait to put things right against Carlo Ancelotti's Blues on Sunday.

"It was a disappointing performance and result," he added.

"The lads can't wait to get out there, prove it's a one off and try to pick up points again.

"When you lose it's important you bounce back with a win.

"We have a fantastic team, a good squad and a great bunch of lads who are willing to work their socks off. If we do that from the start we can get something down there."

Stop Didier Drogba And You Stop Chelsea – Liverpool Manager Rafael Benitez

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has warned his team that they must cope with Chelsea striker Didier Drogba if they are to emerge from Stamford Bridge with a win in Sunday’s big game clash.

The Spaniard renews his rivalry with Carlo Ancelotti in Sunday’s hotly anticipated showdown but Benitez has already pinpointed where the Blues’ main threat will come from.

“People may have an opinion about him [Didier Drogba], but you can never say he is anything other than a very dangerous opponent,” he told the Daily Mail.

“[Daniel] Agger is available again and under consideration, after playing 70 minutes for the reserves the other night, but whoever plays, the situation is clear.

“We must manage the threat he [Drogba] poses and if we can do that, I think we will be all right.”

The Ivorian has already scored six goals in the league this season and will be hoping to add to that tally on his return to the first team, after missing out on his team’s Champions League midweek win due to suspension.

Benitez also admitted his side must play as a team and help out the defence when required in order to nullify the threat the Chelsea striker offers: “We will give our centre-backs extra protection if need be and bring more players back to help them out, because it is crucial we deal with that.”

Chelsea And Liverpool Go Head To Head: The Great Debate On Zonal Marking

Liverpool have conceded 10 goals in their seven Premier League games - only six teams have let in more - and their zonal marking system has come in for criticism.

So as they travel to Chelsea on Sunday to face some of the best headers the league has to offer in Didier Drogba, John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho, Sportsmail talks to Anfield legend Phil Thompson about the pros and cons of zonal and man-to-man marking and how each one works.

MAN-TO-MAN: How does it work?
The five or six best headers of the ball pick up the biggest attacking threats on the opposing team and mark them tightly, following their runs. The defender must get to the ball ahead of the attacker and he is to blame if his man scores. There is also usually a man on each post, one on the edge of the box and one in front of the near post.

Phil says: Many years ago, everybody was man-to-man marking. When I was at centre back with Emlyn Hughes, I would take the biggest one of their players. Then the rest of them would mark whoever else was in the box. That way we never had any debate in the dressing room about accountability.

In my coaching times at Liverpool under Gerard Houllier, I would designate on the teamsheet who all players would mark. I'd list the players in order of the best headers of the ball and they would pick up a player.

I don't think there are too many flaws. The ideal thing about it is you get close to the player and make it as difficult as possible for him to get a run on you. People can get away from you, steal a yard and they will have a chance to attack the ball. It is each player's responsibility and they are happy with that. There is accountability if it goes wrong.

One downside is people often block off markers, which can cause trouble. In my time there, we had the best defensive record in the league for two or three seasons using man-to-man.

ZONAL: How does it work?
The defenders mark key areas of space rather than a man. There are usually three players standing along the six-yard box and three in front of them. There are also men on the posts and two between the set-piece taker and the near post. Players must not move from those positions, no matter where opposition players run.

Phil says: Managers choose it because they think they are covering all the major areas. For me, the biggest flaw is players don't have accountability. You can come in after a game and someone's scored from a set piece and everyone can shrug and say: 'It's not my fault.'

The other thing is you can have attackers running at you when you're standing still. They can be 5ft 2in, get a run on you and you could have five Sami Hyypias and you couldn't stop them. So when you get Didier Drogba or John Terry or Ricardo Carvalho coming at you with that momentum, you don't stand a chance.

But it's not just Liverpool using it. Some teams even do one type of marking for corners and another for free kicks. That's a lot for players to get their heads around.

Liverpool FC Must Show Premier League Title Intent - Rafa Benitez

Rafa Benitez today urged his players to take their Fiorentina misery out on Chelsea and present him with a happy set of problems.

The Liverpool boss is well aware that a victory at Stamford Bridge will result in their odds to win the Premier League being slashed.

But Benitez – who is considering recalling the fit-again Daniel Agger – does not want anybody at Anfield getting carried away.

However, he is equally aware that a repeat of last year’s 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge could end up giving Liverpool an irresistible momentum.

That’s why he has challenged his players to be bold, as they aim to bounce back from the disappointing 2-0 defeat they suffered against Fiorentina on Tuesday.

“It will be interesting because if we can win, everyone will be saying Liverpool can win (the title) like they did after we won there last season,” said Benitez.

“If you lose, they will say that you have no chance. We have to be calm, we have to be relaxed and we have to have the same ideas. We need to keep going.

“It is just another result that we will have to manage; if it is positive, we have got to keep expectations low, if it is negative, we will keep everyone positive.

“When you win these type of games against the top sides, it will be more difficult for me to keep the people on the floor and will hear them saying ‘the title, the title!’

“The most difficult thing is to manage expectations and a win at Chelsea could be difficult to manage but I prefer these problems – I don’t want the other problem of losing.”

One man who is almost certain to be recalled is Javier Mascherano, who has recovered from a hamstring problem that ruled him out of the trip to Italy.

“When you play away, you have to work hard in the midfield and Javier is an important player for us in the past and he has to be in the future,” said Benitez.

Liverpool have endured some stuttering moments so far this campaign but Benitez believes the time is right for them to rediscover consistency.

“It could be a good moment now to change things and the players realise that,” said Benitez.

“Chelsea are a top side and we know that but we will have the right mentality.

Torres Takes September Award

Liverpool striker Fernando Torres has won the Premier League Player of the Month award for September.

The 25-year-old Spain international netted five goals in three league games last month, scoring twice in the 3-2 victory at West Ham, before notching a hat-trick in the 6-1 Anfield thrashing of Hull City.

In total Torres has scored 58 goals in 93 appearances for the Reds.

Torres recently told Sport magazine: "I'm a foreign player, but I know how the Liverpool fans feel and I remember the welcome I had when I arrived - it was amazing.

"I hope to play a lot of years or maybe even finish my career here.

"I don't know, but Liverpool is my English team and I don't think about playing for another one."

Ancelotti Relishing Benitez Duel

Carlo Ancelotti will renew his rivalry with Rafael Benitez claiming there are no hard feelings from their Champions League meetings.

Two of the Barclays Premier League's big guns square-off at Stamford Bridge on Sunday in Ancelotti's first match against another top-four club since becoming Chelsea boss.

But it will not be the first time he has pitted his wits against Liverpool manager Benitez, who he met twice as coach of AC Milan in the 2005 and 2007 Champions League finals.

In 2005 AC Milan went 3-0 up only for Benitez's Reds to produce a stunning fightback, eventually winning on penalties. The Italian giants then triumphed two years later.

"I don't remember 2005 but I can remember 2007. Rafa only remembers 2005!" said Ancelotti.

"There is no pain in those memories. A difficult moment can teach you to improve.

"We lost an unbelievable game - it was one of the best matches for me when I was at AC Milan.

"It will remain a memory - not a positive one, but not a negative one either.

"It was fantastic for us to have revenge against Liverpool in 2007. We were sure we would win. The score is level between us now."

Ancelotti is full of admiration for Benitez's Liverpool, claiming their style would be at home in Serie A.

"Rafa's teams are well organised, especially defensively, and they work very hard to win the ball. I like this kind of work," said the Italian.

"Liverpool are very hard to play against. I think Rafa has looked at a lot of matches in the Italian league.

"At AC Milan it was very hard to beat Liverpool because they don't concede opportunities in defence. I hope it would be easier on Sunday."

During his time at AC Milan, Ancelotti became aware of Fernando Torres - the brilliant Spanish striker who will spearhead Liverpool's assault on Stamford Bridge.

"Torres is fantastic because he is able to score a lot of goals with the head and with both feet. He is the complete striker," he said.

"I like this kind of player. I never tried to sign him for Milan.

"Milan had a good relationship with Atletico Madrid. We changed a lot of players but Fernando was not for sale."

Benitez Hails 'Magician' Ancelotti

Rafael Benitez insists he will not be at war with the latest Chelsea manager, Carlo Ancelotti, claiming he considers the Italian a coaching "magician".

Benitez's verbal battles with former Blues boss Jose Mourinho were a major feature of domestic and European battles between the teams in previous years.

But the Spanish tactician promises everything will be sweetness and light when he confronts Ancelotti on Sunday at Stamford Bridge for a crunch Barclays Premier League clash.

"I am looking forward to seeing him again, I have great respect for him," said Benitez, who went head to head with Ancelotti in two Champions League finals for Liverpool when his rival was AC Milan coach.

"We have competed together at two Champions League finals and now for the first time in the league. He is a great manager, and hopefully we will meet again in another European final at the end of the season.

"He knows how to manage a top side, he had great experience at AC Milan and he is already doing a good job at Chelsea.

"He has not changed too much here, maybe the shape of the team a little but the style of football is similar and the people there are happy because he is winning games."

He added: "I have a lot of respect for Ancelotti, he is a nice man and wants to win. But we do respect each other.

"He has experience of working with top-class players, that is important.

"In Athens (in 2007) it was very close, but after they scored he was on top of things. As a manager he does not change very much, but that makes him a magician, someone who can alter very little but then produce a victory."

Torres: 'Rafa Either Wants To Improve Me Or Kill Me'

Just before it all starts on Sunday, Fernando Torres will, as he always does, drop down on to his haunches and crouch for a minute or more.

It will be just him and the turf and a small box of silence at Stamford Bridge, hermetically sealed from all the sound and the fury outside it. "I don't know why I started but I always do it before the games," Torres says of this habit. "I like to see the other players with the keeper and I like to see the other end and the people in the stand behind the goal. I try to see the goal and try to think where the ball is going."

Seeing the goal is a task which, taken in its literal sense, Torres hardly need prepare for. The eight goals he has placed into a net this season – a tally it took him until 1 February, and the arrival at Anfield of Luiz Felipe Scolari's feckless Chelsea side, to reach in the last campaign – are part of a new-found opulence in Rafael Benitez's Liverpool, whose 22 league goals in the season's first seven weeks represent their most prolific return since 1895. But there are other, more substantial goals to go in search of. Liverpool have not collected a piece of silverware of any description for three long years and the prospect of extending that to a fourth would, Torres sees all too clearly, be a catastrophe for the Red quarters of Merseyside and beyond.

"To go another season and have four years without a trophy would be a massive blow for Liverpool," he says, in his excellent English which is still more Spanish than Scouse. "Three years without a trophy is too much for Liverpool, and especially the Premier League. We have to improve. We really have to win [one]."

He is not the only Liverpool player to betray a yearning for silverware. The same feelings left Pepe Reina, Torres' great ally at Anfield, reflecting last month that the title was not a "realistic objective". But Torres has been here before, on the outside looking in with more than a little envy at other people's trophy cabinets. After an upbringing in Fuenlabrada, a small city on the outskirts of Madrid famous across Spain for putting skirts on the green stick-man illuminated at pedestrian crossings in the interests of gender equality, Torres found himself on the receiving end of the capital city's mighty football inequality, attempting to help Atletico Madrid match their neighbours, Real. Torres, one part prodigy, one part folk hero at Estadio Vincente Calderon, was worn down by the side's over-reliance on him in the end. "Any team has to be built on collective responsibility but at Atletico I had too much and I had to take on the responsibility of others, too," Torres revealed last season.

Though it seems like a case of history repeating itself – the dependence on Torres and Steven Gerrard is as profound as it ever was at Anfield – then Torres has at least found solace from a compatriot who has experienced the same. "I am still waiting for a trophy at club level, and I want one, but I am still young; I am just 25," Torres says. "I was talking with Carles Puyol at Barcelona some years ago and he said he was 23-24 at Barcelona and hadn't won a single trophy, but now he has plenty of them." Ten, to be precise. But while Puyol's wait for silverware lasted six years, Torres is now into his ninth club campaign, with the taste of success which last year's European Championship brought with Spain only accentuating the sense of what has been missing with his clubs.

For all that, though, there is something in the Torres character which makes these proletarian struggles quite natural ones. He might have the accoutrements of the superstar – including the £130,000-a-week salary which this summer's new five-year contract brought and the personal website which confidently places No 9 between his first and last names – but the prevailing sense which El Nino: My Story, his new autobiography, leaves is how Torres and a working-class city like Liverpool were made for each other. He chose Liverpool, he says, "because of the mentality of the club. It's a working club. Always, Liverpool never had the same money as other teams and always is winning trophies like the bigger ones."

Everton fans do not seem to take the same delight in ruining a Torres night out that Real's did, either. "I couldn't do almost anything in Madrid when I was there," he recalls. "Madrid is a big city and I wasn't playing for the strongest team, so 80 per cent of the people there are Real fans. It was hard just to walk or go to a restaurant or the cinema because people do not have the same respect there that they do here for players. If I went somewhere with friends [in Madrid] it was really difficult. Here in Liverpool, I can do almost everything I want to do. I can walk in the park, or to the Albert Dock. The people recognise you but they have a lot of respect for a player. The quality of life is the main thing for me."

It is as well, perhaps, that his preferred days out are not to Manchester – where his career would have taken him had Sir Alex Ferguson has his way – but to the more Liverpool-friendly locations of Chester and Formby. (A 99 Flake with raspberry sauce, the book tell us, is his preference at the seaside.) Perhaps it is also the working-class outlook which makes some of Benitez's interminable ways more tolerable to him than they were to the Liverpool squad the manager inherited in 2004. Torres has more than demonstrated his technical abilities – the quick foot-to-foot transfer and his habit of feigning lack of interest in a ball before pinching it from a defender, which helped him score the 33 goals which, in 2007-08, made him the highest foreign goalscorer in a debut season in English football history. But still the manager obsesses about improvements.

One of the excellent anecdotes in El Nino concerns a day when, after Torres had scored twice in Liverpool's magnificent 2-0 win over Chelsea in February, he was tying up his boots ready to head out to the Melwood training pitch. The weekend papers had been full of stories about Torres being set to become a father and he takes up the story: "'Congratulations, Fernando,' Rafa says.’Thanks, boss,' I reply. I assumed he was congratulating me on the pregnancy and I paused, expecting the obvious next question. I was wrong. 'Just as we'd anticipated, attacking the near post really paid off yesterday,' he said. 'You got ahead of the defender into that space we talked about, which gave you an advantage and allowed you to beat Cech with a header.'"

Typical Benitez – and a story Glen Johnson should have read before he arrived at Anfield in July. Johnson assumed that Benitez would appreciate his talents, having paid £17m for him – then spent three weeks listening to him detailing his faults. "Rafa spends time with everyone whether they are doing well or badly," Torres says in the manager's defence. "He is always pushing the players because it is the best way to improve, and you can say to yourself he wants to improve me or he wants to kill me, but I can tell you, he does want the best for every single player."

The spending limitations are all too apparent at Liverpool, whose American owners are seeking equity partners to help offset their debt, leading Reina to reflect that "teams like Manchester United have lots of players who can tip the balance; we haven't got the individuals". But Torres has a more positive philosophy. "It is easier when you have money to spend on top players, because you have more quality in the squad and more chances," he says. "But it's not always like that. Liverpool won the Champions League four years ago with just a strong squad, so we have different strengths. We have to do it another way." He believes Liverpool can experience the same effect from a first trophy that United enjoyed after winning the Premier League in 1993. "We know that when the first trophy comes we can win plenty of trophies. The next one will come soon," he says.

Having Torres and Gerrard fit to play together more often than the 17 times in the league they were in tandem last season is critical. So far they have already played together in every league game. And victory over Chelsea on Sunday will be a psychological asset. "It will give us plenty of confidence going into the international break. We will be able to rest a little bit and come back feeling like a strong team. If you can beat Chelsea away then you know you can beat any team in England and in Europe. We need to win these kind of games to be stronger." Such are the thoughts that will consume the mind of the crouching tiger who, if you look closely, you will see down there – just about pitch level – as the Stamford Bridge clock ticks up to 4pm on Sunday.