Liverpool vs Chelsea: Locking Horns

Posted by Paul Tomkins on April 19, 2006, 10:14:55 PM

Familiarity breeds contempt. After ten games in less than two years, it's fair to say there's not a lot of love lost between Liverpool and Chelsea. Bad blood has been clearly apparent. But it’s a sign of both teams’ strength that many of these games have been taking place in the latter stages of competitions.

I have a lot of respect for the Chelsea team – it's an excellent unit – and it's manager, Jose Mourinho, in terms of his ability in his role. I just don't particularly admire the way the squad was put together (so much money from outside football, and indeed outside England), and I don't particularly like their manager's arrogance; of course, not that he'll lose sleep about that.

Chelsea's win-rate in the last two seasons has been exceptional, and they've got full value for their £300m. Well, nearly. While us Reds crave another league title, they'd love a first European Cup.

Man-for-man, Rafa has dramatically narrowed the gap on Chelsea this season. The Reds back four might not receive quite as many plaudits individually, but if anything they have even more defensive organisation, and a quite remarkable offside trap that rivals Arsenal's from the late '80s in terms of apparent telepathy.

Goalkeeper was one area where Chelsea were clearly ahead last season. Dudek was inconsistent, and Kirkland was in traction. This season, Pepe Reina has been every bit as effective as Petr Cech. It's lazy to suggest anyone could keep goal behind the current Liverpool back four; Reina has added many aspects, and he's also been alive to any danger after spells of being a virtual spectator. Most crucially, his defence trusts his decision making, and that's a massive factor.

In midfield, Momo Sissoko may be a little more raw than Essien, as is to be expected of a man who's only just 21, but he's been every bit as good as the Ghanian, who cost four times as much; not that Chelsea were not counting the pennies. Sissoko may go on to eclipse Essien in time, but Chelsea paid for a player they knew would settle quickly, with all his Champions League experience; Liverpool had to gamble on Sissoko, and so far it's paid off handsomely.

Up front, both teams have gangly strikers ridiculed by opposing fans, but Peter Crouch and Didier Drogba do hugely effective jobs for their teams. Crouch has the better touch and awareness, while Drogba has more pace and strength. Both weigh in with a decent amount of goals, without ever being prolific; most crucially, they help other players score goals and give their teams good shape.

In fact, up front is the one area where Chelsea don't have a lot of depth in their über-squad. Crespo is a great player and a quality finisher, as we saw in Istanbul and again at Stamford Bridge, but Drogba seems to suit the system better. Gudjohnsen is another fine player, but doesn't play as an out-and-out striker. Then comes Carlton Cole, who won't worry too many defences.

The Reds also lack sufficient depth up front, and are clearly weakened by the ineligibility of Robbie Fowler, whose form in recent weeks has surprised none of those whose faith in his finishing remained strong; in a team creating chances, he will score goals. He just won't create them on his own from the halfway line.

With Morientes' form patchy at best (but still a quality player, which has been proven over the years), deciding on his strikers will be the top priority for Benítez over the summer. Fowler may well join on a permanent basis, but even if he does, he won't be the only front-man arriving, with a quick and reliable finisher still required.

In the centre of the park, Steven Gerrard is superior in nearly all aspects to Frank Lampard - himself seen as pretty close to the perfect midfielder. Gerrard has more pace, skill, strength, is far more versatile and is a better passer. Goalscoring was the one area where Gerrard seemed miles behind, but last season the Liverpool captain's goals-per-start record was better (he missed two months of the season), while this season Gerrard trails Lampard by 20 goals to 19, but Lampard's tally includes two more penalties. So you'd have to call that a tie, now that Gerrard is allowed more scope to attack than he was under Gérard Houllier.

The only areas I'd score Lampard above Gerrard is in his superhuman ability to stay fit, a little less 'excitability', and in the consistency of his deliveries from dead balls.

Central midfield is the one area where Liverpool are stronger than any other English side, especially when you add Didi Hamann to the equation: along with Claude Makelele, the German's name became synonymous with the holding role as a kind of shorthand, summing up the perfect anchoring job in midfield. So strong are the Reds in this area, Hamann has been forced out of the picture somewhat, although he remains a crucial squad player.

Chelsea don't have anyone quite like Xabi Alonso: the best passer in the country. When the Reds play a central three of Gerrard, Alonso and Sissoko, there's a bit of everything. Lampard is a very good long-passer, but Gerrard and Alonso are masters.

The defence is the hardest area to split the two teams. If Gerrard shades Lampard in most respects, then I have to concede that John Terry edges out Jamie Carragher. Not that I'd swap: Carra gives something to Liverpool that Terry couldn't, and vice versa (Chelsea fans may think the same about Gerrard and Lampard) – although Terry's goals are an excellent bonus from a centre-back.

The Reds' right-back Steve Finnan doesn't get the plaudits he deserves, while Liverpool's defensive record is at its best when John Arne Riise is in the side at left-back. Riise is the one player who seems to guarantee clean sheets, possibly because Carragher has been rested for the hugely promising Daniel Agger, and Finnan omitted for Dutch first-choice Jan Kromkamp, but neither Warnock nor Traore have had good seasons when called upon.

Elsewhere, if you can expose Sami Hyypia for pace, as Chelsea regularly try to do, he looks cumbersome; but if not – and most weeks, it's a 'not' – he's as good as anyone in the world at defending the edge of the area.

It's the wide areas where Chelsea still clearly edge things, especially if Gerrard is used infield. Had Mark Gonzalez been granted his work permit, things might be a little different.

The Chilean has been quite outstanding in La Liga in recent weeks, tormenting Real Madrid and scoring some stunning goals, after returning from a long injury. He has Cissé's pace, but far better control and the knowledge of how to play on the flank. It's natural to him. Cissé does his best, and can be devastating, but it's an incredibly hit-and-miss affair.

Luis Garcia is much the same: as with Cissé, he has an excellent scoring record considering the time he spends on the pitch (and that it's mostly spent on the flank), but you never quite know what you are going to get. However, the little Spaniard makes things happen, and doesn't just score but scores important goals.

I always felt Harry Kewell would come good, so I'm happy to see him playing regularly and contributing to the team's much-improved results. However, rather than be exceptional, he's been merely very good on a weekly basis. He's found consistency, but has yet to quite locate that extra edge to his play, especially his goalscoring. When at the top of his game, he can score 15 in a season.

But with Chelsea having Arjen 'Sniper Got Me' Robben, Damien Duff, Joe Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips, they possess more options with a cutting edge on the flanks, as well as bags of pace.

Chelsea are also the one team who have consistently undermined Liverpool's zonal marking system, which has been superb against most other teams.

Another area where Chelsea edge out the Reds is in the time the group has been together as a team. Liverpool added three players to its best XI this season, each to the spine of the side. Chelsea added two to its first team: Asier Del Horno at left back, while only Essien to the spine. (Crepso returned, but he's not a first choice.)

The Reds also added umpteen players to its first team squad, while Mourinho – who, thanks to Abramovich's spending in 2003/04, inherited more quality players than did Benítez – had no such necessity. There's that bit more understanding between the Chelsea players, and that, combined with the strength in wide areas, is why they've done better in the league yet again.

But this is a semi-final. And it's the one place where Liverpool have had the better of Chelsea in the last two seasons. A repeat of last year's Champions League victory would be most welcome.

© Paul Tomkins 2006

"Red Revival", the follow-up to "Golden Past, Red Future", is available to pre-order from www.paultomkins.com. Released at the start of June 2006, only 300 of the 1000 special limited edition copies still remain.



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