What’s the most surprising thing about this season so far? Is it:
a) Hull City cracking the ‘big’ four?
b) Juliano Belletti gaining a song and plenty of plaudits?
c) Newcastle being so bad?
d) Spurs being so much worse?
The answer is of course, e) Liverpool finding themselves still in the title race at the end of October. Having had a reputation for dropping from the summit faster than a lemming, Rafa Benitez’s side seem to have some staying power this year, and having played badly but still picked up as many points as us so far, this game is seen as crucial despite the fact it is taking place while the season is still in its relative infancy.
But while the ‘new’ Liverpool show signs of life, the stats reassure and reaffirm in equal measure. Under Benitez, the Reds have only taken two points from a possible 36 in games against the rest of the top four, scoring just four goals in the process.
They will also be disheartened by the fact that top league scorer and all-round golden boy Fernando Torres is unavailable with a hamstring injury which saw him miss a trip to his old club Athletico Madrid in the week, a game which Liverpool were lucky to draw. However, the other half of their two-man team, Steven Gerrard, is fit despite mid-week worries over his fitness. Xabi Alonso is also available for selection, but Robbie Keane is doubtful. Long-term injury victims Phillip Degen and Martin Skrtel are definitely on the sidelines.
Looking to defend an incredible 86 game unbeaten home record in the league, surely Luis Felipe Scolari would like the strongest available eleven. However, Chelsea’s stand-ins have shown commendable strength and two sides to their play in the last two games. A flamboyant thrashing of Middlesbrough followed by a narrow, battling victory over Roma in the Champions League on Wednesday.
With Michael Ballack, Michael Essien and Didier Drogba all out, some of Scolari’s deputies will get another chance to shine, with Belletti again offering a different option when he came on for the misfiring Malouda in mid-week and Franco Di Santo picking up some valuable minutes in the second-half. There were gentle re-introductions for previous injury doubts Petr Cech, Ricardo Carvalho and Deco, while Wayne Bridge again started at left-back with Ashley Cole unavailable. Both Coles, Ashley and Joe, are fighting for fitness for Sunday’s game. Nicolas Anelka spent a period of time on loan at Liverpool and will be looking to get one over on his old side.
It goes without saying that games against Liverpool are often memorable, for both right and wrong reasons. Ignoring the fact that recently there have been so bloody many of them, compare and contrast the dull 0-0 league draw last February with the exciting, emotional and landmark Champions League semi-final second leg win on the last day of April.
With the first-leg finishing, and would John Arne Riise look away now, 1-1, we had the away goal and the advantage. Drogba, chastised before the game by Benitez for diving, opened the scoring just after the half hour mark with a powerful effort. Cue a celebration right in front of the goateed one and Stamford Bridge in raptures.
Torres cut short the celebrations in the second-half with an equaliser which sent the game into extra-time, and after a disallowed Chelsea goal, Frank Lampard provided one of the most moving moments I have ever seen in football.
Despite the recent death of his mother and consequent lack of match action Frank Lampard unnervingly and emphatically dispatched a 98th minute penalty and kissed the black armband worn in tribute. Cue a celebration which renders me tearful at the very thought.
Drogba sealed the win before a Babel consolation, and the rest, they say, is history.
And while Liverpool may sing about their history and our supposed lack of it, Sunday’s game could be another example of how they are living off it while we continue to make it. It’s a chance to pull away at the top of the league, extend the unbeaten record, and prove we are the better side. An electric atmosphere should greet the two sides, but hopefully by the end of it, only one set of fans will be singing. Liverpool won’t be out of the title race quite yet, but three points for Chelsea would put us firmly in the driving seat.
Prediction: 2-0 win, I’m confident!