Liverpool and Chelsea meet tomorrow in one of the more hotly-contested matchups of the past few years in English football, with both clubs on the front end of particularly important stretches of their respective seasons. Action off the pitch has added more spice to the fixture in the past calendar year, and the matches themselves have been fairly even---Liverpool's done the double in league twice of the last three years, with Chelsea splitting it up and winning both matches two seasons ago. Last season, Liverpool's victories came on the strength of goals scored by Fernando Torres and Raul Meireles, both of whom have since joined the London club.
Which doesn't leave a particularly nice taste in your mouth, especially considering that both were well-loved at Liverpool prior to their exits and important in their way. Lucky for us there's enough booze to wash the taste away, and it's a little easier to take considering that neither has exactly set the world alight since joining Chelsea. The potential for one of them to score the winner tomorrow is still enough to give me the shakes for the next 24 hours, but again, the booze.
After bringing in Andre Villas-Boas over the summer, the general consensus was that it was going to take some time (and money) for the club to adapt to a different style, and early results have more or less confirmed that assessment. At times they've been dominant and fluid, and at others they've struggled mightily, failing to put together more than a few talented pieces. If there's a time for them to find their footing it's now, as Liverpool's visit tomorrow is followed by a month that sees three matches in league against top five sides, two Champions League dates with sides that will challenge for qualification, and a League Cup visit from Liverpool.
Villas-Boas has made most of the changes in the midfield and beyond, bringing Juan Mata to the forefront of the Chelsea attack and relying on the former Valencia man for most of the squad's creativity going forward. No major changes at the back, with Petr Cech returning from injury in goal and John Terry and Ashley Cole starting every match at the back. Terry hasn't developed a regular partner, with each of David Luiz, Branislav Ivanovic, and Alex spending time alongside the Chelsea captain. Ivanovic has also spent time at right back, but Jose Boswinga's a possibility as well. Frank Lampard and Ramires have made the most starts in midfield, with Jon Mikel Obi providing most of the defensive cover and Raul Meireles finding time as well. It's likely we'll see Torres up front supported by Mata, while Daniel Sturridge has emerged as a somewhat frequent starter under Villas-Boas.
Who starts for Liverpool?
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Kuyt Henderson Bellamy
---Steven Gerrard's the only confirmed absence, with Jamie Carragher apparently back in contention after missing the last two matches. Luis Suarez picked up a slight back injury while on international duty, but should be ready to get back in the swing of things tomorrow.
---Unless Kenny Dalglish decides to completely change the formation, I'm hoping it'll be the same back line we've seen in the last two league matches, with Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger in the center with Glen Johnson right and Jose Enrique left. Carragher's return might cloud the picture a little bit, and he was magnificent in this fixture last season, but Skrtel and Agger have the hot hand, and there's no reason to break that up. The only way I'd actually want to see Carragher is if Dalglish goes with three at the back, which we saw back in February at Stamford Bridge, but there's nothing to indicate they're headed in that direction again.
---Hopefully there's some sort of shake-up from the midfield forward---don't know that we'll get a complete revolution, but if Dalglish opts to go with only Lucas and Charlie Adam in the middle, I'm not optimistic. Adding Jordan Henderson to the mix advanced centrally, where he's looked at his best this season, gives Liverpool at least another body, and would lighten the load on Adam and Lucas. We know the Brazilian's a nailed-on starter, and we're still coming to terms with the fact that Adam has somehow worked his way into that territory as well. I think a pairing of Jay Spearing and Lucas behind a more advanced Henderson would be ideal, but that's doubtful.
---I don't see Andy Carroll making the eleven tomorrow despite improved form in the weeks leading up to the international break; Luis Suarez will undoubtedly lead things up front, and I'm hopeful that he's supported in some way (or possibly even in support of) Dirk Kuyt and Craig Bellamy. Kuyt's tailor-made for these fixtures and rarely disappoints, and Bellamy's temperament is perfect for the atmosphere that typically accompanies these matches.
What's the most important factor for the Reds?
There's plenty riding on this one in terms of both the tangible and intangible---in the table it's a chance for Liverpool to draw level on points with Chelsea and keep pace with the rest of the top seven, which now includes a surging Arsenal. Maybe most important, though, is the impact that a victory could have away from the numbers, as it'd be a terrific start to a difficult spell that most have pronounced as the most important stretch of Liverpool's season. Ever. I'm not sure that I agree with the fatalism around the next week and a half, but it's a clearly pivotal stretch, and it'd also be an emotional victory over a club that's taken in three Liverpool's of more effective (and more beloved) players of the past few years.
Tomorrow's match is the only one on the Premier League calendar, which means it's going to get plenty of air time around the world. Sky Sports 1 will have the match in England and Fox Soccer Channel will have the match stateside, and other outlets likely televising it elsewhere. There'll also be a delayed viewing in the US on Fox, which is sure to please everyone who settles in to watch American Football and instead gets overly-coiffed short men kicking something yellow across the grass. Anyhow, we'll have links for streams in the matchday thread, which will have team sheets around an hour before kickoff.
Lastly, condolences go out to Brad Jones and his family after news that his son Luca, age 4, passed away last night after a battle with leukemia. I can't imagine the pain and difficulty their family must be going through right now, and hopefully there will be some small comfort in knowing that he's in all of our thoughts.