Liverpool host Chelsea in the last Anfield match of the season.
At the time of starting this preview, everything is going Liverpool's way. All three of the other fourth-place hopefuls are locked in 0-0 draws. Granted, neither City v. Villa or Spurs v. Bolton has reached the ten-minute mark, but it's something. And it's this something that's going to determine Liverpool's dwindling hopes of a Champions League spot, and it's this something that will hopefully be determined in the eighty-plus minutes of football. Because after the utter heartbreak of Thursday, I can't take much more.
But with this season's iteration of Liverpool, there's never any sort moderation for the heartbreak, and at this point the snowball's rolling down the hill damned fast. Rafa's headed to Juventus, the players are tired, there's nothing left in the tank, a win would mean number 19 for United, a loss would condemn Liverpool to the Europa League. At this point, the internal audio that plays when I read Liverpool-related news sounds a little like this. Oh, and Villa just scored.
Enter Chelsea. In seasons past, Liverpool and the London side have been intertwined in European competition, meeting on a maddeningly consistent basis in the knockout rounds of the Champions League. The stock critique of Liverpool-Chelsea match-ups was initially that the matches were nap-inducing affairs, often with no more than a goal to separate the sides. But in the past couple seasons, last year in particular, the fixtures were set on fire---Chelsea notched 7 across two legs in the Champions League, blood pressures shot through the roof, and in the Premier League Liverpool took all 6 points in two tense affairs. Jack's got a great post of some match-ups gone by---but only one Liverpool victory among the lot. Jerk. Oh, and City denied a chance at an equalizer---former Liverpool man Stephen Warnock knocks down a Carlos Tevez shot with arms extended in the box.
And in this season, Chelsea have got to be clear favorites. This isn't some sort of reverse voodoo jinx attempt, it's just reality. It's telling that the biggest indictment of their squad is that they haven't locked up the Premier League title yet. Oh, to be in that spot. By the way, Huddlestone puts Bolton in front with an absolute jackhammer into the top corner, and Tevez equalizes after Warnock finally does concede a penalty, coming in late on Adam Johnson on the edge of the box. Probably more due to a flop than contact, and now Adebayor has put them in the lead. I can smell the sweet relief of Champions League exile.
The danger men for Chelsea are, and have been, the same cast of characters. Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba are the ones you hear the most about (and likely despise the most), and while it's been a somewhat quiet year for Nicholas Anelka, the resurgence of Florent Malouda has been more than enough to sustain their title charge. And while Petr Cech has been...inconsistent, the defense has done more than enough to cover, and any back line that includes some combination of John Terry, Alex, Ashley Cole, Branislav Ivanovic, and Paolo Ferriera isn't going to do Liverpool any favors.
But Liverpool hasn't been in the business of doing themselves any either, and 120 minutes of nail-biting, end-to-end stuff on Thursday that ended in soul-silencing defeat has to be relevant. It's certain that Liverpool are tired, certain that they're downtrodden, and certain that they're aware their season came to the worst of ends despite one of their most energetic performances.
To a man, it's going to have to come from their pride, because just about everyone who took part in Thursday night's match ran themselves ragged. Ryan Babel, Dirk Kuyt (less than fully-fit, no mind), Steven Gerrard, and Glen Johnson were all end-to-end for the entire 120, and Javier Mascherano, Yossi Benayoun, and Alberto Aquilani each played at least 90. And this ignores the contributions of Lucas, Jamie Carragher, Daniel Agger, and Pepe Reina, who were stretched in their own right.
So to say that it's going to be a battle is an understatement, because each of the names above will likely have a part to play at some point. Respite in the back line will come in the form of Sotirios Kyrgiakos for someone---the most obvious choice is for Masch, with Johnson shifting to right back and Agger back out left. Maxi's availability provides similar relief for the tired legs in attack. There's no getting around it---everyone is on short rest, and as I mentioned, that can't be an excuse. And it's all over at White Hart Lane and the Eastlands---City 3-1 and Spurs 1-0. Getting closer, but of course those two play next week.
But there's still football to be played, and it's meaningful any way you cut it. A chance for Liverpool to get a big win regardless of its implications, and Chelsea need this one to lock up the title. It's been a trial this season, but that's no reason to be dismissive of how important it is to end on a high note. Yes, I'm just as ready for the season to be over as anyone else. That doesn't mean I want it to end poorly.
Lastly, I've been flirting with the idea of a liveblog, but I'm not sure that the early kickoff stateside is conducive to a huge following. Come to think of it, neither is the quality of my writing. Anyway, if there's interest, I'll run it. If not, it'll be the status quo. Come on you Reds.
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