By Séamus Leonard
In a season chock-full of big games, Liverpool faces yet another huge test of its Premier League title credentials when fellow contenders Chelsea visit Anfield for what could be a monumental occasion at the famous venue.
While plans are in the works to expand the iconic stadium, the current structure is likely to contain as partisan an atmosphere as has been witnessed there in the 24 years since Liverpool were last crowned league champions. The Champions League nights during Rafael Benitez’s reign as manager were unquestionably memorable, and none more so than when Chelsea (during Jose Mourinho’s first term as the Blues’ boss) was put to the sword in the 2005 semi-final. Sunday’s game promises to be as intense as those Tuesday and Wednesday nights were under Rafa.
While Liverpool is in the driving seat at the moment, any dropped points will offer Manchester City – currently lying six points off the top with a game in hand – encouragement that it can close the gap. On the flip side, a Liverpool victory would not only bring it to within four points of guaranteeing the championship, but would also mathematically knock Chelsea out of the running.
The sides had contrasting fortunes last weekend, with Liverpool eking out a 3-2 win at Norwich City, while Chelsea surrendered a lead at home to relegation candidates Sunderland as the Londoners slipped to a calamitous defeat. It was the first time a Chelsea side managed by Mourinho had ever been beaten in the league at Stamford Bridge, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time for Roman Abramovich’s plaything.
Mourinho managed to rally his troops for their Champions League clash with Atletico Madrid on Tuesday, and a 0-0 draw at the Vicente Calderon leaves them in a good position ahead of the return leg this Wednesday. That upcoming fixture, of course, leaves Mourinho in a difficult position as regards team selection. His quandary is further deepened by the enforced absence of Ramires through suspension, while injuries will make Petr Cech (shoulder), John Terry (ankle), Edin Hazard (calf) and Samuel Eto’o (knee) miss the trip to Merseyside.
Not one to pass up an opportunity to curse his rotten luck, Mourinho has criticized the Premier League for not moving this game a day or two forward in order to aid Chelsea’s Champions League ambitions. The former Real Madrid manager is right to say that other leagues around Europe do more to help their club sides with the fixture schedule, but every top English side has had to deal with similar situations for years. No other manager has been so vocal with his complaints, however, and few, if any, others have had the strength in depth of squad that Mourinho currently enjoys.
Even if he does go ahead with his threat to field a weakened side at Anfield, Chelsea is still likely to have the likes of Branislav Ivanovic, Gary Cahill, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard, Nemanja Matic, Mohamed Salah, Andre Schurrle and Demba Ba or Fernando Torres in action. So it wouldn’t exactly be David versus Goliath. And if Mourinho really believes that his fielding a “second string” would put an asterisk beside Liverpool should it go on to claim the Premier League title, then he is even more deluded than his increasingly irritating public persona often appears to be.
While Ramires sits out the game for the visitors, Liverpool must also make do without its own dynamic central midfielder as Jordan Henderson serves the second game of a three-match suspension. The importance of the former Sunderland player to the current Liverpool side was evident in the second half at Carrow Road last weekend when Brendan Rodgers’ charges looked visibly jaded as Norwich applied severe pressure. Lucas Leiva and Joe Allen did their best to cover the ground as well as they could, but it is no slight on them that they simply don’t possess the unending energy that Henderson does.
Manager Rodgers is also sweating on the fitness of striker Daniel Sturridge, who missed the trip to Norfolk last Sunday as a result of the hamstring injury he sustained against Manchester City the previous week. Comments from Rodgers at his weekly press conference would suggest that the England international is unlikely to feature from the start. Kopites will be hopeful, however, that Sturridge has at least recovered sufficiently to take a place on the bench.
Liverpool is in a weird position where a draw would keep it in pole position. Such a scenario often brings out the cautious nature in coaches and/or managers. Many others, if they were to find themselves in a similar position, would sit deep and attempt to hit their opponents on the break.
But Rodgers is not wired that way, and neither are his players after a season of remarkable results and performances. Liverpool will attack Chelsea from the off, and Rodgers will trust that his attacking trio of Luis Suarez, Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho will have the wherewithal to overwhelm what by Chelsea’s high defensive standards is a rearguard that could be labelled ‘makeshift’.
The clash between these sides last April was a magnificent 2-2 draw, but Suarez’s late headed equalizer was overshadowed by his ridiculous attempt to bite the arm of Ivanovic earlier in the second half.
It is worth noting that Liverpool went into that game with its ambition being to overtake Everton in the race for sixth place.
Twelve months on and Suarez has reinvented himself. Still prone to the odd theatrical dive, the Uruguayan is now more noted for his prolific goalscoring than for self-destructive antics. He has 30 goals and 12 assists in the 30 league games this season, and only five yellow cards to his name.
While it would be unfair on the rest of his team-mates to say that Liverpool’s rise from the ashes is solely down to the reincarnation of Suarez as an individual, there is no doubt that the inspirational number seven’s focus and discipline have been massive factors in the Reds’ unforeseen title challenge.
However, despite his excellent finish for the second goal at Norwich, Suarez has seemed a little off of late. It might be that he is carrying an injury of some sort, or maybe it is just fatigue after his exploits during this campaign. Whatever the reason, Liverpool needs Suarez at his deadly best for this one. While there is still a nagging doubt at the back of many Reds fans’ heads that this is all too good to be true and that some woe will befall Liverpool to crush our dreams (or is it just me?), victory on Sunday would all but dash those malignant thoughts. It would also put huge pressure on Manchester City to collect all three points from its difficult trip to Crystal Palace on Sunday afternoon.
The title is so tantalizingly close, and yet it could all still collapse on the back of one bad result, a ludicrous refereeing decision, or an inexplicable bounce of a ball.
This anxiety has turned my mind towards a poem I studied in school as a teenager. Irish poet Austin Clarke wrote “The Lost Heifer,” in which he laments the decline of Irish nationalism. The Ireland Clarke wishes for is an unattainable dream, or, in his words, “the last honey by the water that no hive can find.” The image he depicts is that the flower hangs so perilously close to the water that the weight of any bee looking to extract its nectar would carry the plant into the water and drown the bee.
As a Liverpool fan of 26 years standing, the Premier League title has often felt like a similarly impossible achievement. And, ironically, it seemed further away than ever at the start of this season. But, incredibly, here we are. After 11 league wins on the bounce we are left just needing seven points from a possible nine to pull off the most unlikely success since some team came back from 3-0 down at half time to win on penalties against AC Milan in a Champions League final.
And yet I still fear the worst. Clearly, I need help. Has anyone got Dr Steve Peters’ number?
If you are in the greater Boston area, you will be able to watch the match at The Phoenix Landing with LFC Boston. If not, you can watch it on NBC Sports Network and mun2, with coverage starting at 0905 EST.
Liverpool v Swansea City
When: Sunday, April 27, 0905 EST/1405 BST
Where: Anfield, Liverpool
Previous Premier League match: Norwich City 2-3 Liverpool, Chelsea 1-2 Sunderland
League Position 2013-14: Liverpool 1st (80 points), Chelsea 2nd (75 points)
Projected Liverpool Starting 11
DEF: Johnson, Skrtel, Sakho, Flanagan
MID: Lucas, Gerrard, Allen, Sterling, Coutinho
Subs from: Jones, Toure, Agger, Kelly, Sama, Smith, Luis Alberto, Teixeira, Aspas, Sturridge
Projected Chelsea Starting 11
DEF: Kalas, Ivanovic, Cahill, Cole
MID: Salah, Mikel, Matic, Lampard, Schurrle
Subs from: Hilario, Azpilicueta, Ake, Christensen, David Luiz, Van Ginkel, Oscar, Willian, Torres
Follow Séamus Leonard on Twitter @seamusleonard