English Premier League: Liverpool Still Searching for Answers - Rolling Stone
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Premier League: Liverpool Looks for Answers, With Chelsea Looming

After his Madrid experiment, can Brendan Rodgers find a winning combo against the Blues?

Steven Gerrard of Liverpool kicks the ball under pressure from Karim Benzema of Real Madrid in Madrid, Spain on November 4th, 2014.Steven Gerrard of Liverpool kicks the ball under pressure from Karim Benzema of Real Madrid in Madrid, Spain on November 4th, 2014.

Steven Gerrard of Liverpool under pressure against Real Madrid in Madrid, Spain on November 4th, 2014.

Shaun Botterill/Getty

This weekend’s popcorn match could result in a harrowing case of PTSD for Liverpool, or sweet vengeance against the team that ruined their title run last year.

Liverpool v. Chelsea (Saturday, November 8 – 7:45 AM ET, NBCSN)

As it often happens in the Premier League, events outside of its borders tend to have significant influence on its matches. This week’s encounter at Anfield is a perfect example.

Related: Premier League: The Danger Days of the Manchester Derby

The outside event in this case is a match that was played on Tuesday in Madrid. It was a Champions League group stage encounter between reigning champions Real Madrid and a Liverpool side that had last been seen playing badly in a losing effort at Newcastle. Why was Tuesday’s night match so relevant? For a simple reason: Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers decided to field a very different starting eleven than the one he had been using all season. Most probably looked at his lineup and concluded that this was simply a case of preserving the stars for a crucial EPL match, not experimentation. After all, Liverpool knew full well that its fate in the Champions League did not depend on getting anything out of the Madrid trip – it’s all about beating the other two more accessible rivals, Ludogorets and Basel, in the last two group matches.

However, there is a possibility that the Madrid experiment was not purely a Popovich-ian maneuver by Rodgers, but an actual shake-up of his team. After all, the Liverpool manager had selected what could be deemed to be his best lineup for last week’s match at Newcastle, and that did not go well at all. Liverpool were slow, predictable, toothless, and per usual, committed a defensive mistake that cost them the points. Let’s also remember that more-or-less the same lineup failed to score against Hull City the previous week and was down 0-3 to Real Madrid at Anfield not two-and-a-half weeks ago.

An interesting development in the Spanish capital was that Rodgers actually subbed in three of his “starters” midway through the second half, with Liverpool trailing. Coutinho came in for Emre Can, captain Steven Gerrard came in for Lucas and Raheem Sterling replaced Lazar Markovic. Was Rodgers testing out a potential Saturday lineup, wanting to add some attacking flair to a setup that had limited Real Madrid to a single goal until then?

Should Rodgers follow that path, he would field a back four of Manquillo, Skrtel, Toure and Moreno; a midfield five anchored by Gerrard and Joe Allen in the middle, with Coutinho and Lallana on the wings and Sterling playing right behind lone striker Fabio Borini. That’s an intriguing lineup, and leaves at least two weapons on the bench, in Jordan Henderson and the perennially scrutinized Mario Balotelli, if reinforcements are needed. It’s also a faster lineup, with constant movement, pace and industry in that front four.

An interesting outcome of such a lineup: Should it work, it would vindicate Rodgers’ choices in Madrid, and could serve as the turning point for a mediocre start to the season. 

Oddly enough, it was José Mourinho’s Chelsea that was in a very similar situation at the end of last season. Mourinho had just seen his run to the league title thwarted by a terrible loss at home against Sunderland, and he had to consider an upcoming Champions League semifinal against Atlético Madrid. Faced with long odds to claim the league, the Portuguese manager decided to field a weakened lineup against Liverpool that, while not raising the white flag, certainly signaled two big buses being parked in front of their goal. And then this happened:

Chelsea would later add a second goal at the end of the game, and while Mourinho’s tactical maneuver didn’t totally end up working out (they did not advance to the Champions League final with their “rested” players), they did inflict a mortal wound to a Liverpool side that watched Manchester City narrowly claim the title. And just because it’s the Special One, he didn’t shy away from twisting the knife a little more during Friday’s press conference:

However, the present looks much different for Mourinho. His team has a four-point lead in the standings, and even though they’re currently experiencing their first subpar patch of play, they still haven’t lost in either the Premier League or the Champions League. Yes, they barely scraped past their West London rivals QPR, and drew against lowly Maribor.

But this is still Chelsea, and they did outshoot QPR 18-7, and Maribor 24-11. They enjoyed over 64 percent of the possession in both matches. Chelsea still have Diego Costa, Eden Hazard, Oscar and a defense that has allowed the second fewest goals in the league. Talented teams tend to let motivation slip when they’re not faced with elite competition. The Blues will certainly be up for it at Anfield, and Mourinho has a full squad to choose from.

It will be interesting to see who will take the initiative in this match. You’d think that Liverpool playing at home and needing a result will push them forward, but the Reds know full well of the dangers that await them if they give Chelsea’s front four of Costa, Hazard, Oscar and Willian space to chase down quarterback Cesc Fabregas’ precise deliveries. It might be that the hosts decide to be a little cautious, given the frailty of their defense this season.

Regardless, Chelsea will be asking plenty of questions of either the new Liverpool back four, or the one that’s been leaking goals since last season. The Blues have such a strong roster that it will take quite a special effort from Liverpool to exorcise last year’s demons and vindicate their manager’s midweek chess moves.

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