Chelsea prepare to battle their nemesis

Posted by Miguel Delaney

Fernando TorresGettyImagesFernando Torres has experienced both sides of the Liverpool-Chelsea duel

Way back when Jose Mourinho was first turning Roman Abramovich’s club from pretenders into prize-winners, one factor generally prevented Chelsea from the trophy they wanted above all: Liverpool. Twice in the Portuguese’s three Champions League campaigns at Stamford Bridge, his side were eliminated by the slimmest of margins in the semifinals. In between, too, they failed to defeat the Anfield side in the group stages. Making that all the more frustrating, though, was the fact they regularly overwhelmed Liverpool in domestic games.

It’s interesting how history has been inverted. Although Chelsea have finally won the trophy they desired most, they can no longer seem to beat - or even draw with - Liverpool outside of the cups. The Anfield side have won the past four successive league games between the two, with Chelsea’s most recent league victory coming when they won 2-0 at Anfield on 2 May 2010 to effectively secure the title.

On Friday, current manager Roberto Di Matteo simply said it out flat. “They are our bogey team.”

At the least, though, the Italian attempted to offer an explanation for that beyond the usual intangibles.

“Whatever the reasons are, whenever they play against us they have one of the best games of their season. It also happened that, when they played against us, we weren’t at our best.”

There is, admittedly, some merit in this point. When Liverpool did the double over Chelsea in 2010-11, it was either end of the atrocious three-month run that derailed their title challenge as well as Carlo Ancelotti’s Stamford Bridge career. Last season, then, one defeat came a month after the infamous match at Loftus Road when Chelsea’s season started to unravel, the other the week after the exhaustive effort at Barcelona that put the club back into the Champions League final.

Here’s the problem for Chelsea now, though: They aren’t quite flying as high or as excitedly as they were at the start of the season. The defeat to Manchester United and all of the consequent controversy seems to have slightly affected their concentration, as they followed it by allowing a lead and a win to slip away from them at Swansea. In short, they haven’t won in the league in three.

Di Matteo, however, is confident that the desperately late win over Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday can have a similar, if opposite, tilting effect to the defeat to United.

“Ultimately, we are very pleased with the result. It was a tough game but showed character and mentality, which have proven so many times to be a winning asset for us, to keep going until the end and show the qualities we have.

“[For] Sunday, we are in good spirits, full of confidence and the team is playing well. Hopefully it will be a different story [to usual].

“We’ll pose different kinds of questions to Liverpool on Sunday than we did in the past.”

At the other end, though, Luis Suarez will pose different problems himself. The form of the Chelsea defence appears to be declining while that of the forward is only escalating.

“He is a magnificent player, and very dangerous a big threat for any defender who has to play against him. They don’t have many other strikers but they have some young, talented players and some experience -- [Glen] Johnson, [Martin] Skrtel, [Dan] Agger, [Jose] Enrique. They all have a lot of games in their legs.

“I think you would have expected them to be a little bit higher up the table if you look at their squad. It’s anybody’s guess why they raise their game against us. I guess we’re a good opposition.

“I’ve watched Liverpool and analysed the way they play, and what kind of options they have when they attack. We’ll talk about that with our team and hopefully we can limit the balls into Suarez as much as we can.

“We’ll have to be focused, not just on him because he’s not the only one, but we have to pay some attention to his movement and his threat. He’s an extremely dangerous player for them.”

That, of course, only sharpens the debate about whether John Terry should start. Although his lack of pace may see him exposed by Suarez, his defensive intelligence means he isn’t so likely to be drawn out of position.”

On that, all Di Matteo would say was that “there are a lot of considerations to be made before the game”.

At the least, though, the likelihood is this game itself will also be more favourably considered than those Champions League matches of the past. One of the notorious characteristics of those fixtures was the caginess. The 390 minutes across four semifinal games, for example, only produced three goals and resulted in Jorge Valdano making his infamous comment about “s--- on a stick”.

This time, though, we’re likely to see more attacking strides than astute strategy. Both sides have made much-discussed transitions to more open, technical approaches, with Chelsea’s again only illustrated against Shakhtar. Most notably, Eden Hazard’s positioning appeared to greatly expose Ryan Bertrand.

“We have a little bit of a different team, trying to play a little bit different and at times we are a bit more open. Defensive responsibility is for everyone, not just the back four or the centre-backs. It is part of everyone’s job to work defensively.

“This is what I say about organisation. It’s about the team. Everyone has to help out. We know what we have to do and we will improve.”

It might also prove key to finally improving an unimpressive recent record against Liverpool.

How Chelsea have fared against the other big names in the league since they last beat Liverpool, on 2 May 2010 in terms of matches played, matches won, drawn and lost:

v Manchester United 5 1 1 3
v Manchester City 4 2 0 2
v Arsenal 5 2 1 2
v Tottenham Hotspur 5 2 3 0
v Liverpool 4 0 0 4

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