It was very much a case of job done in Azerbaijan, with Chelsea overcoming Qarabag 4-0 to book their place in the last 16 of the Champions League with a game to spare. The fact that the match with Atletico Madrid is now a dead rubber is a real bonus.
We were aided by Qarabag going down to ten men early on Wednesday, of course, with Rashad Sadygov, bamboozled by Willian’s run, sent off after just 19 minutes. Eden Hazard despatched the resulting spot kick, before the Brazilian bagged a brace in a performance we can file under ‘food for thought’ for Antonio Conte.
Cesc Fabregas notched the fourth, again from the penalty spot, to seal a good night’s work for the Blues.
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The problem now for Chelsea is overcoming the 5,000 mile return trip from Azerbaijan in time for Saturday’s evening kick off against Liverpool, who of course have an extra 24 hours to recover after they played their Champions League encounter against Sevilla on Tuesday.
It would be churlish to label that ‘unfair’, as a fixture backlog is the price of success in football, but you can forgive Conte for feeling rather aggrieved in his post-match press conference.
“Someone has to help us. As you know very well the English league is very tough. There are six top teams that fight for the title. I don't want to complain, but this is the reality, he said.”
“Now we have to travel five hours and a half, and then rest one day, and then prepare the game against Liverpool.”
At least the Italian will have some fresh legs to call upon. He rested Gary Cahill, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Alvaro Morata for the trip east, and all can expect to come back into the starting eleven for what is a serious test of credentials at Anfield.
Chelsea Team NewsAlongside the rested players, the most notable selection against Qarabag was the restoration of David Luiz in defence.
The Brazilian was put on the naughty step by Conte prior to the international break after a couple of below-par performances, but he was restored to the line-up in Azerbaijan and played with his usual assured authority.
Does this mean that he is back in Conte’s plans for good? It’s possible, but who would be surprised if Andreas Christensen was drafted back into the side to combat Firmino, Salah, Mane and co on Saturday.
Otherwise it’s very much as you were. Victor Moses could be fit enough for a place on the bench, but he surely won’t be risked against a firing Liverpool outfit. Michy Batshuayi is also out for the foreseeable future with an ankle injury.
So now, Conte must decide how he tackles this free-scoring Liverpool side. We can see him reverting to the 3-5-1-1 system he has used in big matches this season, and that will help to shut down the middle of the pitch – an area where the Reds are so dangerous.
Both Sadio Mane and Mo Salah play as inside forwards, so their natural instinct is to cut in from the wing into the middle third, where they join the likes of Roberto Firmino and Phil Coutinho.
So it’s imperative that the Blues shut down the middle third, and as such we expect Conte to draft in Kante, Bakayoko and Fabregas in a tight trio in the centre.
Liverpool vs Chelsea Head to HeadThere have been more than 175 meetings between Chelsea and Liverpool, with the first taking place a mere 110 years ago!
The history books tell us that the Reds have enjoyed more success against the Blues than vice versa – 77 wins to 61, but that is skewed slightly by Liverpool’s dominance throughout the 1970s and 80s.
Even so, the modern era has proven kind to the Merseysiders. They are unbeaten in five Premier League outings against Chelsea (W2 D3 L0), and if we flick back through the history books slightly further we note that the Blues have won just five of their last eighteen games against Liverpool!
That said, our record at Anfield isn’t too bad. We’re actually unbeaten in six there, with four draws backed by consecutive victories in 2014. The first of those was the scene of the infamous ‘Steven Gerrard slip’ that blew open the title race and ultimately handed the trophy to Manchester City.
How the Match Will Be WonCan we stop Liverpool from scoring? That’s the big question here, as they are so poor defensively that we would expect to find the net ourselves with a fit and firing Alvaro Morata back leading the line.
Manchester United escaped from Anfield with a goalless draw, and that was due largely to Jose Mourinho’s grand parking of the bus routine. Whisper it, but there might just be something in that….
As mentioned, we really need to close down those spaces in the middle third of the pitch. Mane and Salah can have the ball in wide areas, but as soon as they drop that shoulder and cut infield we need a mass of bodies in place to shut down the room in which they can operate.
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Even with this perceived defensive formation of 3-5-1-1 Chelsea will be fancied to score, especially with Hazard and Morata linking up so nicely against West Brom last weekend, and the Belgian will be absolved of all defensive responsibilities in this system. Playing on the shoulder of Jordan Henderson, he will be granted the freedom of Anfield.
And that, ultimately, could prove the difference between these contrasting teams.