Reds out to banish their Blues
LIVERPOOL v CHELSEA
(Tonight, 8.45pm, SingTel mio TV Ch 102 & StarHub TV Ch 227)
Of all the teams in the league, why did it have to be them?
That's how Liverpool fans felt about last season's dramatic defeat by Chelsea at Anfield.
Had it been Everton or Arsenal or perhaps even Manchester United, it might have been better.
But the rivalry between Chelsea and Liverpool is a strangely intense one.
It's new money against old money, style against effectiveness.
Jose Mourinho's side represent the very antipathy of the ideals that of which many Reds believe they stand for.
So why did it have to be them? Tonight, there is a chance for revenge.
That day last season will always be remembered for Steven Gerrard's slip, a mistake that allowed Chelsea to take the lead and thus stop Liverpool's title challenge in its tracks.
What it should be remembered for is Chelsea's exceptional performance.
They were a mix-and-match team, their core strength held back for the Champions League semi-final a few days later.
And yet they held the form side of the Premier League back in their own stadium and then took their chances to beat them.
Given that a draw would have put Liverpool in pole position for the title, and that had they played for one, Chelsea would have been unlikely to beat them, perhaps it's not Gerrard's mistake that should be remembered.
Brendan Rodgers is facing the toughest criticism of his Liverpool career.
It's hard to overstate how much he needs a result tonight.
Rodgers' decision to select his own mix-and-match team for the Champions League clash with Real Madrid in midweek did not go down well in the press or with the wider elements of Liverpool's support.
That, say the critics, is not how a club like Liverpool should operate.
Rodgers responded strongly this week, telling the press that his selection was a vote of confidence in his squad and that he would never go into a game with a team that he thought could not win.
He was too polite to make the smarter counter-argument that, given the wretchedness of Liverpool's display at St James' Park, how could you possibly suggest that the lesser lights were any worse than the superstars?
Nevertheless, Rodgers will look extremely silly if a rested team fail to raise their performance against Chelsea tonight, especially in a game of such critical importance.
Defeat would put Liverpool a massive 15 points behind the Blues, not an insurmountable gap given that there are two-thirds of the season still to play, but certainly enough to raise serious questions about the direction of the team.
Like Tottenham Hotspur last season, Liverpool are struggling to integrate a host of new players.
Of all of the summer signings, it's hard to say that any have settled comfortably. To make matters worse, some of the existing players have slipped backwards.
Simon Mignolet's performance against Real was much welcomed, given how poor he's been this season. He will need to be at his best again to keep Chelsea at bay.
Mourinho's side are the runaway league leaders, but there have been signs of a slowdown in their play.
They spurned the opportunity to wrap up their Champions League group in midweek, drawing with Maribor away from home and, last weekend, they gave a workmanlike performance against Queens Park Rangers.
They are the superior team, but they are not invincible.
All the Liverpool fans want now is to see a glimpse of the team that made them dream last season.
They want to see the flamboyance, the pace, the desire and the belief that so nearly captured the crown.
They want to see Gerrard stare down his demons, they want to see their new signings prove their worth and, most of all, they want to see Mourinho sweat.
If they play like they can, Rodgers can lose the game and not lose face.
But, if this turns into another frustrating 90 minutes, expect the pressure on Rodgers to increase dramatically.
- 8.45pm: Liverpool v Chelsea
- 11pm: Man United v Crystal Palace
- 11pm: West Ham v Aston Villa
- 11pm: Southampton v Leicester
- 11pm: Burnley v Hull City
- 1.30am: QPR v Man City
- 9.30pm: Sunderland v Everton
- 9.30pm: Tottenham v Stoke
- 9.30pm: West Brom v Newcastle
- 11.55pm: Swansea v Arsenal
Rodgers backs 'strong' Gerrard
- PHOTO: AFP
Brendan Rodgers insists Steven Gerrard will not crack under pressure when the Liverpool captain bids for redemption against Chelsea tonight.
Gerrard endured one of the worst moments of his career as his disastrous slip against Chelsea in April allowed Demba Ba to score the goal that shattered Liverpool's challenge to win the title for the first time since 1990.
The 34-year-old has been well below his best since that agonising mistake and his spluttering campaign, which mirrors his team's struggles, suffered another blow on Tuesday when he was restricted to a 20-minute substitute appearance in the 1-0 Champions League loss at Real Madrid.
Reds boss Rodgers (above) also rested several other key players and said he was trying to keep Gerrard, who has been bothered by a hamstring injury, fresh ahead of the Chelsea showdown.
With Liverpool languishing 12 points behind leaders Chelsea, Gerrard desperately wants to erase the bitter memory of last season's mistake and this week's demotion by delivering a dominant display against Jose Mourinho's team, who will swagger into Anfield unbeaten in 16 games in all competitions this season.
Gerrard has risen to the occasion many times before and Rodgers is banking on another inspirational display from his talisman.
"He has had hard moments in his career and he always responds magnificently. There was no blame. It was just an unfortunate thing," Rodgers said of the slip that is now immortalised by Chelsea fans in a taunting chant Gerrard is sure to hear many times tonight.
"He was instrumental in our run last year and how well we played.
"He is a big character and bounces back from that. It shows you the character of Steven."
As if Gerrard's attempt to make amends for his costly mistake isn't a juicy enough sub-plot to tonight's clash, there is also the lingering bad blood following Rodgers' criticism of Mourinho's cautious tactics in that 2-0 win at Anfield in April.
Chelsea midfielder Nemanja Matic reignited the feud this week when he said the Reds had only themselves to blame for failing to prise open the Blues defence.
"Many teams this season have tried to park the bus in front of the goal against us, but we win," Matic said. "If you defend, you have to know how to defend. In that game (in April) we showed we have quality." - Wire Services.
"He has had hard moments in his career and he always responds magnificently. There was no blame. It was just an unfortunate thing."
- Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers on Steven Gerrard's slip in the 0-2 loss to Chelsea in April