One of the silliest rumours that I’ve heard this season — and there have been many — is the suggestion that Liverpool will lie down and make things easy for Chelsea at Anfield this weekend because they don’t want Manchester United to win the English Premier League title.
As you will no doubt already be aware, Chelsea currently head the EPL table by one point from Manchester United with two games to play. The Blues travel to Liverpool tomorrow afternoon, knowing that victory will leave just a home game against Wigan between them and the trophy. And, considering Liverpool’s fierce rivalry with their near-neighbours from Manchester, some pundits have speculated that they might simply let Chelsea win.
In reality, that simply won’t happen. As I wrote in this column a few weeks ago, professional footballers do not generally share the prejudices of their supporters, deriving their motivation instead from more selfish ambitions, and the majority of Liverpool players really couldn’t care less who ends up winning the title out of Manchester United or Chelsea.
Liverpool’s only motivation for the game will be a personal, positive one — clinging on to the faint hope that they can still secure qualification for next season’s Champions’ League by finishing in the top four. To make that happen it’s simply imperative for the Reds to win both of their remaining games, and that will be the only thing on their minds. The identity of their opponents, and the potential ramifications of the result to other teams, will not enter into their thinking.
However, something that probably will play a significant part in determining Liverpool’s mental approach to the game is their shattering Europa League exit against Atletico Madrid on Thursday night. For a long time now, the Reds have known that the Europa League offered their only potential route to a trophy — and Liverpool certainly approached the season with that specific ambition of winning silverware. Now the dream is gone, it would be natural for them to be somewhat mentally flat and distracted from the challenge presented by Chelsea.
Thursday night’s defeat against Madrid, by virtue of the away goals rule, was such a devastating occasion there is a real danger that it could effectively mark the end of the Reds’ mental commitment to their season. A cloud of negativity has been swirling around Anfield from the very early weeks of the season, ever since it became apparent that they were unlikely to mount a serious challenge for the EPL title, and that cloud could now become overwhelmingly stifling as Liverpool come to terms with their midweek European exit.
But whatever effect the events of Thursday night may exert on the morale of the Liverpool players, a far more important factor in deciding the outcome of Sunday’s meeting will be how well Chelsea play. It’s quite simple: if Chelsea perform at their best, they will probably win.
That will surely be the message that Carlo Ancelotti will transmit to his team as they prepare for the game: forget the opposition; forget the atmosphere within the stadium; forget Manchester United. Just concentrate on the process of eleven men against eleven men.
Already this season Chelsea have beaten Manchester United twice, Arsenal twice and Liverpool once, and they are more than capable of completing a ‘clean sweep’ of the Big Four if they don’t allow themselves to be carried away by the significance of the event — they need to focus on playing the game, not playing the occasion. A man as experienced and clear-thinking of Ancelotti will surely ensure they have the right frame of mind and don’t allow themselves to become over-excited.
Fresh legs will be another factor to give Ancelotti’s side the edge. While Liverpool went through the tiring mental process of preparing for a major semi-final and then endured 120 minutes of gruelling physical endeavour, often chasing the ball as Madrid dominated possession, Chelsea’s players had the welcome opportunity to partake in some gentle training sessions, rest some aching limbs and receive treatment for niggling injuries.
At this stage of the season, towards the culmination of 10 months of relentless, constantly challenging physical work, nearly every player is carrying some kind of injury. A combination of rest and treatment allows most players to get through the pain for another couple of weeks, but Liverpool’s more punishing schedule will exacerbate the aches and pains felt by their players, while their last seven days of contrastingly peaceful activity should allow Chelsea to be a lot closer to 100 per cent.
So everything seems to be adding up to count against Liverpool: the lingering disappointment of Thursday night; the lack of purpose and direction for their remaining games; the punishing physical schedule they’ve undertaken, and, last but by no means least, the fact that Chelsea have a better group of players.
In a logical world, all of these factors should combine to result in a comfortable victory for Chelsea tomorrow; but we all know that football is not always logical. More often than not it is, but not always. So there remains a chance that Liverpool will somehow overcome the odds and further obstruct Chelsea’s progress towards the EPL trophy, and in this topsy-turvy season it appears that nothing will be straightforward.
Only one thing can be certain: if Chelsea do come away from Anfield victorious, it won’t be due to a lack of effort on the hosts’ behalf.
Away from Anfield, the most meaningful game of the weekend takes place at Eastlands, where fifth placed Manchester City host sixth placed Aston Villa. With Tottenham, current occupants of the all-important fourth spot, presented with a seemingly routine home game against Bolton, this is effectively a last chance for City and Villa to maintain their claims for the final Champions’ League qualifying berth.
Defeat for either side will almost certainly bring their challenge to an abrupt end, and in such a pressurised situation it’s a tough one to call. Home advantage could be enough to turn the tie in City’s favour, but they have a series of injury concerns and have been surrounded by continuing speculation over the future of their manager Roberto Mancini. City have home advantage, Villa have the momentum; it could go either way.