COBHAM ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 04: Manager Carlo Ancelotti (L) and Fernando Torres pose for the media at the Chelsea Press Conference on February 4 2011 in Cobham England. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
Two weeks ago, we'd have pointed to this match as a game against fairly weak mid-table opposition at home, notably only for a now-dead 'big four' rivalry. Now, everything's changed. Don't get me wrong - Liverpool are not a strong side, but they're now very much in European contention on the back of three straight wins. But combining that with the 50M Fernando Torres purchase, the subsequent spike of hatred between the two fan bases, the tactical shuffling of both teams, and the strange results already this weekend, and suddenly we have a very compelling game on our hands.
Liverpool now look nothing like the side that beat us 2-0 at Anfield. With Roy Hodgson gone, they're no longer playing a dour super-defensive 4-4-2, experimenting with various formations built around a five man midfield. They even played a 3-6-1/3-5-2 against Stoke earlier this week! Many have dismissed their shape against the Potters as a one-off event, but as we all should know, a three man back line is at its best when faced against two central forwards.Chelsea are trying to learn to play with two central forwards. I'm connecting the dots here and saying those two things are related.
Of course, Chelsea don't necessarily have to play both Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba tomorrow. There's no reason that this team can't beat Liverpool at Stamford Bridge, Luis Suarez or no. As the Blues showed against Sunderland, they're certainly out of their 'bad moment', and even a Torres-less side should be able to put goals past Kenny Daglish's Reds. It would certainly help if Torres, was playing, but if Liverpool expect a 4-4-2 from Chelsea and counter with a 3-6-1 or something of the like Chelsea will get a lot of joy via from their standard 4-3-3, with Torres as a substitute. Of course, Liverpool know this too. Game theory!
Anyway, no matter the lineup, I'm confident that Chelsea are the better side. The team's outscored its oppenents 17-2 in the last four games and while Liverpool were better than Stoke at Anfield they hardly blew their lowly opponents off the field. Liverpool are on a three game winning streak of their own, and although nobody should take them lightly their days as a powerhouse are at a temporary end.
Andy Carroll won't be fit for the Reds, meaning that Suarez will have to lead their line by himself, something he's capable of but not at his best doing. Their midfield can attack, but is rather more questionable in defence, and their defence itself can be charitably described as 'messy.' Despite the excellent Pepe Reina in goal, Liverpool are very beatable, and we're a top team, playing them at home. I'd say we can avenge that 2-0 reverse at Anfield.
For now, I'm going to assume a standard Chelsea 4-3-3 without Fernando Torres against a Liverpool 4-2-3-1, but obviously that could change at the drop of a hat. Individual matchups will be interesting. It's a shame for Chelsea that Glen Johnson has been moved to the right to accommodate Martin Kelly - with Chelsea rarely putting much pressure down that flank in recent months, Johnson's defensive problems won't be as exposed, and his bombing runs forward may cause Jose Bosingwa at right-back some problems. Ashley Cole will cause problems down Liverpool's right regardless, unless of course Dirk Kuyt proves dangerous enough to keep him on the defensive.
The key battle will be for control of midfield. The last time these two sides played, Ramires had a terrible game and Yuri Zhirkov both vacated the centre, leaving Steven Gerrard and Lucas to dominate the match. This time, Michael Essien and Frank Lampard are both available, which should mean a very different story. Chelsea's midfield three should be a match for Liverpool's in skill, and has far more power behind it. If the match is won, it will probably be from here.
Up front, Florent Malouda, Didier Drogba, and Nicolas Anelka have all vastly improved over recent weeks, and should prove a handful for Liverpool's defence. Kelly did a good job of shutting down Chelsea's attacks on the left at Anfield, but he may not be so lucky here. I'd expect Chelsea's forward line to generate plenty of goalscoring opportunities against a rather shaky-looking Liverpool defence, which they'll need to be very careful with. Pepe Reina is a major force in Liverpool's goal, and Chelsea can't afford to waste chances tomorrow.
I'd expect John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic to control Luis Suarez if the Uruguayan plays a typical centre forward role - Suarez simply isn't big enough to take the two Chelsea defenders in the air. If he drops off a bit and runs at the defence, however, there will be some problems. Neither Terry nor Ivanovic (or Alex, for that matter) are particularly good at dealing with tricky forwards, so we may well get stung there. Let's hope not!
For Chelsea, three points would be invaluable, cutting the gap between themselves and Manchester United to seven points after the leaders' surprising 2-1 defeat at Wolverhampton earlier today. They can also close down Arsenal in second place after the Gunners inexplicably collapsed in the final 20 minutes against Newcastle, turning a 4-0 sure victory into a 4-4 draw. A Chelsea win would suddenly make the top of the table a lot more interesting.
Liverpool fans may see this match as more of a sideshow, though. At this point, they can't be expecting much out of a visit to Stamford Bridge, although they did get the win there two seasons ago. Torres is likely to be what gets their fullest attention, and they're going to be very very angry at the Spanish striker's 'betrayal' of the club at which he was a legend. Fair play to them too - I wouldn't exactly have been thrilled about it if Zola had joined United in 1998 or something, but I hope that things don't get out of hand.
Time: 4:00 PM GMT (11 AM EST)
Pick: 2-1 Chelsea.