x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

European rivals gear up for a domestic

Carlo Ancelotti and Liverpool go back a long way; more than 1,500 miles, to be precise.

Carlo Ancelotti will look for another victory over Liverpool.
Carlo Ancelotti will look for another victory over Liverpool.

Carlo Ancelotti and Liverpool go back a long way; more than 1,500 miles, to be precise. And more than four years, to be of greater relevance, to a May night in Istanbul when his AC Milan side were on course to conquer Europe, and instead Rafa Benitez's team captivated a continent instead with a comeback that conferred greatness on Steven Gerrard.

Ancelotti's revenge, in the 2007 final, remains overlooked in England but helped account for his employment at Chelsea. A double Champions League-winning manager now encounters Liverpool on a domestic stage. Given that Chelsea's last meeting with them finished 4-4, that 3-3 draw in Istanbul may stir Ancelotti's memory. So, too, may some choice Italian words. Ancelotti has confessed to speaking in his native tongue when angry. Neither last week's 3-1 defeat at Wigan nor Wednesday's unconvincing 1-0 win over Apoel Nicosia constituted la dolce vita. Nor indeed, did Liverpool's 2-0 reverse against Fiorentina, a match that led Benitez to promise "a totally different performance with a different mentality" today.

Indeed, each can derive encouragement from the others' recent failings. Runs of eight and six successive wins respectively have given way to renewed doubt generated by defeat. Anger has been vented in both camps. One amendment in personnel would be appreciated in the visitors' dressing room today. If Javier Mascherano overcomes a hamstring problem he will replace Fabio Aurelio in midfield, a department where Liverpool were over-run in Italy.

A diamond formation allows Ancelotti to deploy Michael Essien as Gerrard's shadow, if he chooses, and should afford Chelsea a numerical advantage in the middle of the pitch. Mascherano's ability to hassle and harry could render him invaluable. The equivalent fixture last year amounted to a tactical triumph for Benitez. Courtesy of Xabi Alonso, Liverpool ended Chelsea's unbeaten record of 86 Premier League home matches. As significant as the statistic, however, was the way Chelsea's attacking full-backs were nullified. Luiz Felipe Scolari's gameplan never appeared as inspired again. What, then, will Benitez's painstaking analysis of Ancelotti's approach reveal?

It may be pertinent that Wigan beat Chelsea with a 4-2-3-1 formation that bears marked similarities to Liverpool's. Benitez is an advocate of two holding midfielders. Nor is he averse to fielding a forceful forward on the flanks. A further consequence of the defeat at the DW Stadium is Petr Cech's suspension. It means Henrique Hilario, the third choice before Carlo Cudicini's January departure, is poised to make just a 15th league start in four seasons in England. When Stamford Bridge appeared an impregnable fortress, the identity of the goalkeeper did not matter.

Now, however, Liverpool are the Premier League's top scorers, averaging 20 shots and more than three goals per game. Fernando Torres, with eight to his name, is the executioner in chief, and the man whose double condemned Chelsea to defeat at Anfield in February. Fiorentina's success, in part, came from cutting off the supply line to Torres and Gerrard. Liverpool's other difficulty has been in stifling opponents at the other end. Their defence has been breached twice in four separate away games this season. The regularity with which set-piece goals have been sieved bodes badly, given the delivery of Frank Lampard and the menace of Didier Drogba.

So, too, did Martin Skrtel's uncharacteristically error-prone display in Florence. The greatest test of a central defender's physicality in the Premier League awaits the Slovakian today, unless Daniel Agger is parachuted in for a first game of the season. It would amount to a huge task for the Dane. With each club seeking a response to an abject display, it is shaping up to be a defining moment in either campaign. Liverpool's tally of two league defeats equals their total in the whole of last season. For Chelsea, a second successive setback would provide unwanted echoes of the way last season unravelled after a stellar start.

But then these are games with consequences. This is the 30th meeting in five years; what began as a rivalry after the appointments of Benitez and Jose Mourinho has escalated into a feud between the clubs. It is a war of attrition and a war of ambition. And for Ancelotti, it is one that began with what appeared a one-sided celebration in Turkey and ended up in unprecedented embarrassment. rjolly@thenational.ae

Chelsea v Liverool, 7pm, Showsports 1 & 2