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Marquee matchup: Unravelling Liverpool needs to tighten up vs. Chelsea

Back in September, things were very different.

Antonio Conte’s Chelsea gave David Luiz his second debut for the club in the visit from Liverpool, but still a lot of reliance rested on veteran John Terry, who brought leadership and orientation to the side. Nowadays, he struggles to get a sniff in the first XI.

The Reds, who triumphed 2-1 at Stamford Bridge that Monday evening, were beginning to move to the speedcore tempo of Jurgen Klopp’s designs. The three points were deserved, and Jordan Henderson’s match-winner – a swerving looper into the top corner – was a belter.

Tuesday’s opponents’ respective form against other teams in the top six continues to be generally successful:

# Team Won Drawn Lost Points
1 Liverpool 3 3 0 12
2 Chelsea 3 0 3 9
3 Tottenham Hotspur 2 3 2 9
4 Manchester City 2 1 3 7
5 Manchester United 1 3 2 6
6 Arsenal 1 2 2 5

But there’s no doubting that things have taken a worrying turn at Liverpool lately, with three consecutive home defeats compounded by a blunt strikeforce, predictable narrow forays forward, and a tendency to fluff its lines in defence of midfield.

The visit from Chelsea is awful timing.

Injuries and suspensions

Liverpool awaits for news on Sadio Mane’s arrival from the Africa Cup of Nations. If he turns up on time, will he be fit physically and mentally after missing in Senegal’s penalty-shootout elimination? Nathaniel Clyne is a doubt.

Chelsea is the only team in the Premier League to have a completely clean bill of health.

Projected lineups

Liverpool starting XI: Mignolet; Clyne, Matip, Lovren, Milner; Lallana, Henderson, Wijnaldum; Mane, Firmino, Coutinho

Chelsea starting XI: Courtois; Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill; Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso; Pedro, Costa, Hazard

What to watch

Considering Liverpool’s downturn in form, this tie is predominantly about whether Klopp’s clan can break down the Blues.

The balance of Chelsea’s lineup is remarkable. Gary Cahill, the least natural in a back three and with dwindling physical capabilities, is protected and supported by Marcos Alonso, a man well-versed in a wing-back setup. On the other side, Victor Moses, a player used to scant opportunities on the wing in loan spells at various clubs over the past few seasons, has performed admirably, but is ably backed up by Cesar Azpilicueta, one of the league’s best and most versatile defensive-minded players.

There’s no scab to pick at in Conte’s starting XI, so it might be worth trying to cut the engine off altogether.

At Manchester United a couple of weeks ago, the Scousers sought to break down Michael Carrick, an old trusty cruise-liner engine not built for speed but for its reliability. It worked, with the 35-year-old being hauled off at half-time.

Chelsea’s motor is entirely different: a noisy, vibrating speedboat built for parting waves and kick-starting controlled chaos that goes by the name of N’Golo Kante. Shutting him down is difficult, but could be achieved via the same means as the Old Trafford framework.

Rather than the usual 4-3-3 system used under Klopp, Liverpool could benefit from setting up something closer to a 4-2-3-1. Lallana would be slid inside to do a man-marking task on Kante, and rapidly pressing him when he’s in possession. If Lallana gets the better of the Frenchman once – and quickly – it could present a four-on-three opportunity with Alonso, Moses, and Nemanja Matic often stationed higher up the pitch.

The gegenpressing philosophy would remain, albeit in a different shape.

When out of possession, this could also provide an outlet on the counter-attack. When Chelsea’s on the hunt for a goal, Kante tends to stay back ahead of Luiz and Cahill, while Azpilicueta and Matic stay on the edge of the final third, blocking pathways down the wings. This leaves a gulf around the D of the opposition’s box, and when a cross is cleared from danger it could fall at the feet of Lallana or, more likely, Roberto Firmino.

With the Brazilian moving laterally, poised to prevent Azpilicueta or Matic picking up the ball and maintaining pressure, he could then twist and look to the wings for a swift counter-attack.

Ultimately, however, the tie is in Chelsea’s hands. A win for the away side could simultaneously halt Liverpool’s season in January – a situation unthinkable a month or so ago – and leave the Blues with just London rivals Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur to paw away from top spot contention.

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