It is fifth versus sixth in this midweek game on Merseyside. Club historian Rick Glanvill and club statistician Paul Dutton preview our clash with the reigning champions…
Born six years and 90 miles apart in Germany, Chelsea’s Thomas Tuchel and Jurgen Klopp of Liverpool meet again for the first since November 2018, when hosts Paris Saint-Germain beat the Reds in the Champions League group stage.
With so much still on the line for both clubs, no one is expecting a repeat of July’s eight-goal oddity which featured Chelsea’s highest league goal tally at Anfield for 15 years. We lost 5-3.
That was the third of four straight top-flight defeats for the Blues against Liverpool, however, and avoiding a fifth is paramount. The defending champions, though, have lost their past four at home and are winless in six.
Victory for Chelsea would open a potentially significant four-point gap over Liverpool with 11 games to go. The Blues would also return to the top four as West Ham are not in action till Monday.
The Londoners remain unbeaten after nine games under Tuchel and have won four of the last five on the road.
Chelsea team news
It was not immediately obvious but Thomas Tuchel started with a back four defending against Manchester United on Sunday, Cesar Azpilicueta reverting to right-back and Ben Chilwell on the left with licence to rove forward. The second-half switch to 5-3-2 was made to counter the threat of Shaw and Rashford, while the eye-catching N’Golo Kante successfully nullified Fernandes.
Since the Bavarian coach’s arrival, Chelsea have produced the second most attempts on goal in league games (86) but this has not yet translated into goals, with 10 in eight outings, three of those coming from the spot.
Some might be tempted to blame wayward execution yet, outside of penalties, the Blues’ ‘expected goals’ (xG) number is 11th best in the league, indicating few are genuine scoring opportunities.
Chelsea are dominating possession but to be more incisive in the final third, the delivery from midfield may need to be quicker and more progressive, with magic in and around the box from regular starters finding their range, or from the likes of Kai Havertz, Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech, whose involvement has been more limited for various reasons. Timo Werner and Tammy Abraham were also afforded some rest at the weekend and will be fresh for this fixture, although Tuchel reported the latter has had some problems with his ankle in training this week.
The head coach has found solutions for defensive weaknesses, and the players are now well organised against counter-attacks even when camped in the final third, but the aim now is to find the balance between being impossible to resist while difficult to score against.
Thiago Silva remains sidelined but Andreas Christensen (sent off in the reverse fixture at the Bridge) has grown in authority during his run in the team. He won all of his duels against the Red Devils and hit 100 per cent accuracy with his passing. Edou Mendy, who signed after Liverpool’s visit in September, has managed clean sheets against Tottenham, Atletico and now Man United.
This season Liverpool have been far from the all-conquering champions of the first half of last season, and have suffered against sides such as Everton who kept the ball in Liverpool’s third to score a goal, then defended deeply.
The Reds have also conceded nine goals more in the league than Chelsea this term, despite facing fewer shots on goal from opponents. Forty-four per cent of attempts against the Reds have been on target, compared to just 30.5 per cent in respect to the Blues, perhaps signifying they allow opponents a clearer sight of goal.
Their squad has had to cope with injuries beyond Virgil van Dijk, especially in defence. Without their captain and talisman, the Merseysiders have recorded the fewest tackles in their defensive third and block the lowest number of opposition shots, while a surprisingly high number of the fouls they commit lead to goals.
However, Jordan Henderson is a double loss as his passes from central midfield initiated so many attacks and, when required, he proved an able centre-half. Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson will be missing today’s encounter with the Blues
The current centre-back pairing of Nathaniel Phillips and Ozan Kabak is the 18th used this season, and inexperience could be making Liverpool’s high defensive line more vulnerable. Sheffield United caused Jurgen Klopp’s men problems on Sunday with a simple ball behind the backline, and Leicester might have also scored more from breakaways playing with two strikers and a diamond midfield.
For their win against the Blades, though, Klopp made a few tweaks. Thiago Alcantara and Gigi Wijnaldum protected the central defence and while Andy Robertson pushed up on the left, Trent Alexander-Arnold held back to make a three-man backline. Upfront, Sadio Mane played more centrally, Roberto Firmino dropped back into midfield, but Curtis Jones was often furthest forward in an inside-left role and scored the important opener.
The Reds’ options have been boosted by the news Alisson is expected to return in goal following his tragic family bereavement, and that Fabinho and Diogo Jota are training again.
Race for the top four
Just seven points separated the clubs in second and seventh in the table going into these midweek fixtures and so much could change over the dozen matches remaining between now and May.
At this point last season Leicester were third, nine points ahead of Chelsea. Over the last 12 fixtures the Foxes were hunted down and overtaken by the strong-finishing Blues and Man United, finishing fifth and averaging one point per game.
Defence of the realm
Liverpool are not the first team to experience it being one thing to win the league title and quite another retaining it.
With 26 games played, the Reds are 33 points worse off than at the same stage in 2019/20 with their lowest haul since 2015/16. The lowest points tally produced by the previous season’s winners at this stage of a campaign was Leicester’s 24 from 26 in 2016/17, but the Merseysiders’ defence of their crown is sixth lowest on that list.
The best-ever performers were back-to-back champions Chelsea in 2005/06, with 21 wins, three draws and two defeat after 26 matches.
Saint and Chelsea
By coincidence, tonight’s fixture is the same chosen by Ian St John, who has sadly died this week aged 82, when Liverpool offered their long-serving former player a Testimonial in April 1973. Liverpool striker Ian St John in 1967
Chelsea manager Dave Sexton kept his promise to the Scot that he would field a strong line-up at Anfield for the game which, again coincidentally, immediately followed Manchester United’s visit to the Bridge, and Bobby Charlton’s last match.
Premier League results and fixtures
Burnley 1 Leicester 1
Sheffield Utd 1 Aston Villa 0
Crystal Palace 0 Man Utd 0
Fulham v Tottenham 6pm (BT Sport)
West Brom v Everton 6pm (Sky Sports)
Liverpool v Chelsea 8.15pm (Sky Sports)