Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers insists his side have learned from last season’s crushing defeat to Chelsea and will go looking for the victory he hopes will kick-start their season.
Last April, Jose Mourinho, under whom Rodgers worked first time around at Stamford Bridge, came to Anfield with a tactical plan to stifle and frustrate and exploit any weakness.
It worked perfectly as the then free-scoring home side failed to break down a disciplined defence and were caught twice on the counter-attack — the first coming, now famously, after Steven Gerrard’s slip allowed Demba Ba race through to score.
The defeat was the beginning of the end of Liverpool’s title dream but now the tables have turned, and it is Chelsea who are in top spot, unbeaten in their opening 10 matches.
Mourinho will have adapted his game plan for today’s early kick-off but Rodgers insists his team are ready, having already lost at home to Aston Villa and been held by Everton and Hull.
“We will have learned from that. This is a new challenge and it will be a tough game,” said Rodgers.
“Chelsea were strong last year and they have big experience in their squad and know the league.
“Add to that the players who have come in and Diego Costa, one of Europe’s top strikers, and Cesc Fabregas, who knows the league and is a real creative force, and add (Eden) Hazard to that who is one of the best young players in the world and they are a strong outfit.
“This offers us a great chance at home to get a great result and hopefully kick-start the season.”
Liverpool have won just one of their last five games in all competitions yet Rodgers believes his side are getting better.
“I can see improvements day-by-day,” he insisted. “We’ve had injuries and in patches we’ve shown the level of our game is okay but it’s not consistent enough. We haven’t scored as many goals as last season. We are trying to find that solution and balanc.”
While Rodgers will recall big names like Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling — all rested in midweek Champions League defeat to Real Madrid — others may find they have been overtaken.
With defence such a problem this season the performance of Kolo Toure against Real could threaten the position of summer signing Dejan Lovren. “Kolo was outstanding,” said Rodgers.
The Liverpool line-up
Having opted against starting the likes of Steven Gerrard, Raheem Sterling, Philippe Coutinho, Dejan Lovren and Mario Balotelli for the Champions League clash against Real Madrid the starting side Brendan Rodgers selects today will be keenly awaited. The Liverpool boss dismissed the notion he fielded a reserve team against the European champions but the likelihood is the team that starts against Chelsea will differ considerably from that which lined up for the Champions League tie at the Bernabeu.
Rodgers desperately needs a result against the league leaders to justify risking Liverpool’s European future. If Liverpool can become the first team to beat Chelsea in the Premier League this season, the gamble will be vindicated. If, however, Liverpool lose serious questions will be asked, most notably how can a team that got so close to glory last season already be 15 points behind the leaders?
Chelsea’s stunning start to the season has led to suggestions they can emulate the Arsenal Invincibles. Such suggestions may be premature but their recent form has been sensational. Jose Mourinho’s men could, quite conceivably, have won all 10 of their league fixtures given that in the only games they failed to win, against Manchester City and Manchester United, they conceded late equalisers. Draws away at such opposition hardly represent bad results but they might have been better had Chelsea not sat back on their advantage. The City game in particular was an opportunity missed given the Premier League leaders were a goal and a man to good — after the dismissal of Pablo Zabaleta — when Frank Lampard came back to haunt his former employers. If Chelsea get their noses in front at Anfield, a more ruthless, offensive approach can be expected.
With Luis Suarez gone and Daniel Sturridge injured, Liverpool have looked to Raheem Sterling to provide the creative spark. The initial signs were encouraging. Sterling netted in the opening day win over Southampton before producing one of the best individual displays of the season to inspire Liverpool to a 3-0 win over Tottenham in August. Since then both Sterling – with the exception of starring role in the 3-2 win over QPR – and Liverpool have struggled.
The 19-year-old has not been helped by the saga as to whether or not he claimed to be “too tired” for England duty but to have a chance of beating Chelsea, Liverpool need their most creative outlet to rediscover his best form.
Last weekend Gary Neville announced the art of defending is dead. “When I was brought through from 1991-94, if a full-back allowed a cross it was a crime. Nowadays it barely seems to register,” the former Manchester United full-back turned pundit lamented. There are, however, exceptions to such a sweeping statement. Branislav Ivanovic for one.
While Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa have understandably dominated the headlines at Stamford Bridge this season the contribution of Ivanovic should not be understated. The Serbian is the type of tenacious defensive warrior Neville believes the game has lost. However, he is more than that. He is also a rampaging attacking threat from full-back and a danger in opposition boxes on set-pieces, one of the many areas, as Mourinho will surely have noted, where Liverpool are vulnerable this season.
Why always him? Because if Liverpool are to start winning games someone has to score goals and who better than the striker brought in to fill the Luis Suarez-shaped hole in their attack? Balotelli has been something of an easy target this season and is far from the only problem at Anfield.
None of Rodgers’ signings have convinced thus far but, given his history, it was inevitable Balotelli, who Mourinho famously described as “unmanageable” would be the main focus of attention.
Signing the Italian maverick, even for a relatively modest fee, represented a gamble on Rodgers’ part and Balotelli’s body language, workrate and, most importantly, lack of goals suggest the show of faith may come back to haunt the Liverpool boss. A meaningful contribution, starting today, is required.
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