Monday, April 28, 2008

Liverpool-Chelsea Champions League Preview

This isn’t necessarily a blog resurgence, but I wanted to write a preview for the Champions League Semifinal 2nd leg between Liverpool and Chelsea. For those of you who didn’t see the first leg, Liverpool’s John Arne Riise scored an equalizing own goal in the 94th minute, earning Chelsea a draw and coveted away goal, after a mostly uninspired performance. I love Liverpool, so while I will do my best to provide objective analysis, I cannot promise the same for the tone.

(The game is on Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. on ESPN2.)

Liverpool’s success during the second half of the season seems to have come as a result of Rafa Benitez’s decision to solidify the starting lineup and the 4-2-3-1 formation, which makes speculation for his lineup choice on Wednesday all the more interesting. While Liverpool completely outclasses Chelsea with this same lineup last week, their precarious position and the pressure to score at least one goal may force him to opt for a more attacking formation.

History certainly favors Chelsea. They have not lost at Stamford Bridge since 2004, which was also the last time they conceded a goal to LFC.

If I had the choice I would opt for a more attacking lineup, but with the same general 4-2-3-1 formation:

Reina

Riise-Škrtel-Carragher-Arbeloa

Alonso-Mascherano

Gerrard-Torres-Benayoun

Crouch

This lineup basically replaces Kuyt and Babel with Benayoun and Crouch. People may question the exclusion of Kuyt given his goal in the first leg and his overall experience. I would go with Benayoun because of his pace, as well as the form he showed in the game against Birmingham this weekend. What it does is give Benitez two options for a substitute. Say Liverpool score an early goal or two. He can then bring on Kuyt who can track back and provide help in the defensive third to protect the lead. And if they are still searching for a goal as the game progresses, then Babel would be the perfect option for a set of fresh legs to run at the Chelsea defense who will be at least somewhat fatigued after playing a full, intense 90 minutes against Man U on Saturday.

Crouch is the riskier choice. I like his aggressiveness and the target he provides up front. He has seemed to work well with Torres in the limited opportunities he’s had, and I would think he could put pressure on the back four. I think it is more likely that Benitez will keep Gerrard in the slot behind Torres and go with a lineup of:

Riise-Škrtel-Carragher-Arbeloa

Alonso-Mascherano

Kuyt-Gerrard-Babel

Torres

He would then bring on Benayoun and possibly Crouch if they still need a late goal.

As for Chelsea, their biggest benefit is the return of the suspended Michael Essien. I’m assuming they will stick with their 4-3-3 formation of:

Cech

Cole-Terry-Carvalho-Ferreira

J. Cole-Lampard-Essien

Malouda-Drogba-Ballack

Essien replacing Makelele should figure to be a tremendous improvement, considering Makelele’s subpar performance last week. Kalou on the other hand was outstanding, and I would look for him to provide a spark coming off the bench.

Keys to the Game/Things to Watch For:

1. 1. John Arne Riise

Let’s go over what everyone should already know. Riise has been shit all season. He scored a completely stupid and unnecessary own goal. With Aurelio’s injury he is almost certain to get the start at left back. What people seem to forget is that he has played in numerous big games and scored some big goals in his career. He was devastated after last week, but said he is ready to move on and looking forward to the second leg. While I’m not optimistic enough to think he will score the winning goal, I do expect him to be solid in defense, as well as get forward and serve some good balls into the box.

2. 2. Refereeing

I need to preface this by saying that Liverpool wouldn’t be here without some controversial calls going their way. With that being said, Drogba is a bitch and his diving is a disgrace. Moreover, Fernando Torres got abused by Chelsea defenders (including the kick in the ribs by John Terry behind the play which should have resulted in a send-off and possibly a fine). It will be interesting to see if Torres can get some of the protection that Drogba seems to have earned.

3. 3. John Terry

Terry is playing with a yellow card (as are Gerrard and Carragher) meaning if he picks up another he will miss the final in Moscow. Liverpool should look to exploit this by attacking him and forcing him to make some tough decisions. My bet is that Terry will be hesitant to make a tough tackle around the goal, which could provide LFC with the advantage they need to score the away goal.

4. 4. Goalkeeping

Cech was the Man of the Match of the first leg in my opinion. He made some top class, unbelievable saves, keeping Chelski in the game and allowing for the late equalizer. Pepe Reina was barely tested, minus the attempt by his own defender. Judging by recent form I would say that Chelsea have the advantage in the net, unless the match goes to penalties, in which case Reina’s record gives Liverpool the edge.

Prediction: Chelsea score first (Ballack), but Torres equalizes in the second half. The game goes to overtime where Ryan Babel scores the winner. Liverpool wins 2-1 and go on to Moscow.