JUST mention the name ‘Chelsea’ and Robbie Keane, the elder statesman of Irish football, assumes the look of an overgrown toddler.
His eyes sparkle at the memory of his last meeting with the west Londoners, a 4-4 draw last February when he was still clad in the white of Tottenham Hotspur, and suddenly his inner child is off the leash. “Wow, phenomenal, goals galore,” he gasped. “Attack versus attack, one of the greatest matches in the Premier League. Just like a schoolboy game, really.”
Keane’s enthusiasm is endearing, but if the Dubliner is expecting another bout of playground football when he travels to Stamford Bridge tomorrow, he’ll be sorely disappointed.
Chelsea versus Liverpool is a game for grown-ups, a fixture where the stakes are invariably so high it has its participants gasping for air.
For Liverpool, the significance of tomorrow’s game hangs particularly heavy. Their supporters are travelling to this corner of the English capital for the first time since a gut-wrenching Champions League semi-final in May but revenge will not be uppermost in their thoughts.
There is, after all, no reason for Liverpool fans to dwell morbidly on the past when the future looks so thrilling. Liverpool have started the season with the determined air of title contenders, their resilience exemplified by stunning comebacks against Manchester City and Wigan Athletic, and their credentials will be beyond dispute if they become the first team to triumph on Chelsea’s soil in the league since February 2004.
“Nobody’s saying it won’t be tough,” Keane said. “They are doing well and haven’t been beaten for so long at home, but the way I look it at is that records are there to be broken. We are doing well, too, so we have to be confident we can go there and get a result.”
The flip side, of course, is the implications of a defeat on Merseyside. Defeat at the Bridge would not sound the death knell for a title challenge but it would sow the first seeds of concern at a club where doubt needs no encouragement to flourish.
Chelsea, meanwhile, are the polar opposite, an outfit defined by their rugged sense of self-belief ever since Jose Mourinho breezed through the front door four years ago.
Liverpool would occasionally be inspired by the possibility of bloodying the Portuguese’s nose, but Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Chelsea are an altogether different proposition.
The swaggering confidence has remained, but it is now manifested with a smile rather than a snarl. Goals are flowing freely, players who were once rendered robot-like by Mourinho’s intransigent battle-plans now liberated by the more relaxed Scolari.
“In the first two Mourinho years, I think we were absolutely fantastic,” Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard recalled.
“The first year, it’s taken a little bit for granted just how good we were — the amount of points we amassed, the few goals we gave away. That was something very special.
“Now, there’s a similar type of feeling to that in this squad. We might be playing a slightly different type of football, but there’s still that same kind of mentality going into games feeling very strong, feeling we can win games.”
Lampard stops short of predicting a goalfest at the Bridge, not unreasonably. Tomorrow’s latest squabble appears a textbook case of an irresistible force colliding with an immovable object, a confrontation which usually delivers stalemate. But, either way, the picture of the title race, blurred until now, will be in sharper focus tomorrow night.
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