Liverpool head to London tomorrow to face Chelsea, winners of their last three at Stamford Bridge but still struggling to find ways to win matches, while their hosts sit just a point off Manchester United at the top.
Big matches for Liverpool always walk the line between exciting and horrifying--the Merseyside derby was glorious for twenty minutes and then miserable for the rest, especially at the end, and fixtures against Manchester United have impossibly become even more anxiety-inducing over the last two seasons. Chelsea fits somewhere on the fringes of those, with less significance in the table given Liverpool's drop-off and no chances in Europe, but Chelsea remains something of a rival, if for no other reason than sentiment, which is unfortunately Liverpool's only type of rival at this point.
But that allows for Liverpool to build a sort of collective confidence, which is something they're sorely in need of. Inconsistency in terms of results and performances have Liverpool in between the insecure, directionless performances on display under Kenny Dalglish last season and the type of arrogant football Brendan Rodgers prefers.
The Chelsea they'll run into tomorrow isn't quite at their peak in terms of confidence, with two negative results in league in their last two. The first, a loss at home to United, was one of the more calamitous matches to date in the Premier League, with Mark Clattenberg's officiating taking center stage and Chelsea ending up with nine players before losing on an offside goal from Javier Hernandez. The draw with Swansea last time wasn't necessarily bad, as Swansea did well and are solid at home, but Chelsea will have expected more given the way they've been able to get results this season.
They'll head into tomorrow expecting three points, and Roberto Di Matteo will have a nearly full-strength squad to call upon. Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard are expected to miss out, but John Terry's back from suspension, and David Luiz and Juan Mata will both be back after being left out with injuries against Swansea. Most of who they'll line up with are names you know--Petr Cech in goal, Branislav Ivanovic, Gary Cahill, Luiz/Terry, and Ryan Bertrand across the back, Obi Jon Mikel deeper in the midfield with Oriol Romeu or Ramires partnering, and a dynamic front four with Mata, Oscar, and Eden Hazard behind Fernando Torres.
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Sterling Suarez Assaidi
Aside from the three long-term injuries--Martin Kelly, Lucas, and Fabio Borini--there's nothiing new to report, and both Glen Johnson and Pepe Reina should be back in the contention, with the only question being whether or not the latter's ready tomorrow.
I'll guess that Reina is ready to start tomorrow, and that he'll make his return exactly five weeks since he last played for Liverpol. Whether it's he or Brad Jones, though, it seems likely that the back line will be the one that was first-choice for much of last season. Johnson on the right, Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger in the center, and Jose Enrique at left back. It very well could be Andre Wisdom on the right and Johnson left, but the youngster's ninety minutes in Russia on Thursday seem to indicate that Enrique will be in the eleven again.
The lack of involvement for each of Joe Allen, Nuri Sahin, and Steven Gerrard secures that they'll be the midfield three tomorrow, with few other options available given that Jordan Henderson and Jonjo Shelvey both played (relatively unimpressive) ninety minutes midweek. Small chance that Suso, who was by far Liverpool's most positive on the night in Russia, gets a central role, but the three we've seen most often are probable.
Up top it seems certain that Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling will start, and while Suso will likely slot in again on the right, I'll go with something different and guess for Sterling right, Suarez central, and Oussama Assaidi, who only got a little more than ten minutes on Thursday, on the left. That leaves Suso as an impact substitute either on the flank or through the midfield, where he's sparkled when given the opportunity.
It's not an official derby, so I don't know if contractually I make the assertion that form goes out the window tomorrow. I doubt that's quite as true as when Liverpool play Everton or United, but as we talked about earlier, Chelsea have struggled with Liverpool over the past two seasons regardless of how well or poorly Liverpool are doing, and that should be reason for optimism. Of course, the match actually has to be played, and we'll find out if that's something that carries any water or actually just a fun piece of history.
Kickoff tomorrow is set for 4:00PM GMT/11:00AM EST, and will serve as one of the marquee matches on Sky Sports' Super Sunday and the center piece of Fox Soccer Channel's coverage. We'll have the matchday thread up earlier in the morning iwth team sheets about an hour or so before the match starts, with the overnight open thread providing a chance for collective hand-wringing in the late hours.
Hope you all had a good start to the weekend, and we'll all hope Liverpool finish it off with a positive result.
**As was the case last time, the Twitter account of AlanLFC has released a "correct" team sheet early. Was right against Anzhi, so will run it again: Jones/Reina; Wisdom, Carragher, Agger,; Johnson, Gerrard, Allen, Sahin, Enrique; Sterling; Suarez. We've seen the formation before to some effect, but I guess we'll wait and see.**