Saturday, October 25, 2008

EPL Preview: Chelsea vs. Liverpool

The two biggest matches of the weekend take place on Sunday. And both are of the upmost importance for completely different reasons. Liverpool take on Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, as the only unbeaten sides in the Premiership lock horns in what should be a fascinating encounter.

Meanwhile, Tottenham Hotspur entertain Bolton in what is now a must-win match for under-pressure boss Juande Ramos. Spurs have had the worst start to a season in their history, and after only accumulating two points from eight games, they look like being involved in the relegation dogfight for the rest of the season.

Interestingly, bookmakers have Spurs at 4/1 to be relegated but 4/9 to finish above Hull, who have had a most impressive start to the season. And who could actually go top of the league by Saturday evening if results go their way.

But back to what looks like a mouth-watering prospect in Chelsea-Liverpool.

Both sides go into this match short of full-strength squads. Ricardo Carvalho looks set to feature after he made his return midweek against Roma continue his stay after spending much of the last month on the sidelines. And Big Phil hopes to have the influential Portuguese back in a week or two.

John Terry continues to struggle with a back injury that has hampered him since July, and it would be un-thinkable to see Chelsea line out against their bitter rivals without their Captain. Ashley Cole will undergo a late fitness test to see if he can replace Michael Bridges after the former Southampton man put in another top-notch cameo performance in Middlesbrough's demolition last week.

In midfield, Deco should start after returning from injury last week, with Belletti missing out. He should partner Lampard and the increasingly excellent Obi Mikel in midfield. Out wide, Saloman Kalou should continue in the side after bagging a brace last week. No changes up front, as Anelka continues unchallenged by an unfit Drogba.

Liverpool go into this match without Fernando Torres, who is definitely out. How Benitez addresses this problem could be the key to the match. Keane partnered Kuyt last week against Wigan, and it took the pairing a long time to get up to speed.

On Wednesday, Kuyt was dropped as Gerrard was pushed on as the link player, and while Liverpool should have put the game beyond doubt in the first half, they eventually paid the price as both Keane and Gerrard came off with niggling injuries, and Atletico went on to dominate the second half.

Dossena and Arbeloa still look fragile in the fullback positions, and Agger has done everything except impress since his return to the starting lineup. Only Carragher has truly impressed so far, and his partnership with Skrtel was cruelly brought to a close by the Slovakian picking up a dreaded cruciate-knee-ligament injury.

In midfield, Benitez's fears have been eased, as both Gerrard and Alonso came through fitness tests yesterday. How the midfield will line out depends very much on Robbie Keane. If the increasingly influential Irishman can shake off his injury, he should line out up front, if not, then Kuyt looks a certainty.

Out wide, Riera looks like he's settling quickly, and he seems a certainty for the left berth, leaving Benitez with a big decision to make on the right, Benayoun, Kuyt, or El Zahr? This decision may be made for him, and much depends on whether Ashley Cole is fit enough to play.

The matches between these two are usually tight affairs, and this could continue today. Benitez will pack midfield and will try to stop the marauding fullbacks of Chelsea pushing on. With Torres out of the side, much will rest on Gerrard's shoulders and the impending battle between him and Mikel could decide the match.

Much has been made of the free-flowing style since Scolari took over, and Chelsea, with the same personnel, look a much different prospect than when Mourinho was in charge. Under Scolari, Lampard has found another gear and they now get the ball wide very quickly. Whether they can take advantage of the tactically astute Liverpool side is another thing.

Under Benitez, Liverpool have only beaten Chelsea once in eight attempts. And they go into this match unbeaten this season and unbeaten in their last 15 matches. Chelsea, on the other hand, are unbeaten in 29 and are also unbeaten this season and hold an intimidating home record of 86 matches unbeaten.

What this all points to is that this match will be a close affair. Both sides are built on resolute defences and have terrific players going forward.

However, Liverpool's talismanic Fernando Torres will be missing, and with Benitez looking to cement Liverpool's credentials as title challengers and win his first away fixture against one of the top four, this game could be a week too soon for Liverpool.

Liverpool have not won the league in 19 years and this is their 19th attempt at their 19th league title. And they have only won once at Chelsea in their last 16 attempts. Liverpool have dropped more points to Chelsea away from home than they have to any other Premiership side.

This match pits two of the Premiership's form teams against each other, and it should be a fascinating encounter, if not a goal fest.


Chelsea 10/11 Draw 9/4 Liverpool 3/1