If you believe the two coaches, tonight’s match between Chelsea and Liverpool at Stamford Bridge doesn’t particularly matter. Both managers claim to be more interested in their next Premiership games, seeing as qualification is already in the bag for both teams. That’s not what players from both sides are saying though – those that will be on the pitch seem to be looking to take the only prize left from the group – top spot.
We always feel there’s a need to have a pinch of salt handy when Chelsea’s boss Jose Mourinho is speaking. He plays things down sometimes a little too much to be believed, but perhaps he’s got a point tonight for once: “I would prefer to beat Wigan than Liverpool, because to be first or second has no consequences and because beating Wigan means three more points in the direction of the Premiership.”
The only thing that gives away a hint that Jose is bothered is his customary dig at how Liverpool sent Chelsea out of the Champions League last season, and how the winning of the league title is much better: “In the Premiership the best team wins and if we don’t win it we have to accept that somebody was better than us over 38 matches. In the Champions League, you always need a little bit of luck so not always the best team wins. Liverpool had luck against Chelsea by scoring that goal in the semi-final last year.”
Jose is glad that Liverpool helped Chelsea to get through by remainng unbeaten against third-placed Real Betis this season, something that they won’t have the benefit of for the rest of the competition: “In the group phases, the best team goes through because if you make a mistake in the six matches, you don’t die – you have a chance to get points in the other matches. Knockout stage is more difficult to control your destiny. I cannot say Chelsea are the best team in Europe at the moment and I can’t say any other team is either.”
For all of Jose’s apparent bitterness towards Liverpool, there seems to be little of that from his opposite number. Rafael Benitez says the same thing about the importance of Liverpool next two matches, this one is the least important. He said: “For me, Middlesbrough is a very important game. To go to Japan with three more points at the top of the table will be fantastic for our confidence. To finish top of the Champions League group will be good but the priority is to make sure all the players are fit for the Middlesbrough game.”
A draw would be enough tonight, and another clean sheet from Reina would keep Liverpool’s confidence high, but Rafa says that even a defeat tonight should not harm the confidence they’ve built up in the league. That’s what matters he says: “We need the confidence from winning games in the Premiership. In the Champions League we can wait a month before recuperating any confidence we might lose.”
Rafa did point out that the game wasn’t going to be treated as a friendly, it’s just that where there’s any decisions to be made over a particular player then the league game gets the priority: “Both the games are important. The Champions League is a big competition for the players, the fans and the media, but for me the Middlesbrough game means three more league points, and that is my priority.”
Liverpool were way off the pace last season in the Premiership, but at the moment they have closed their own gap on Chelsea to just 12 points – and with a game in hand. It’s still a tall order for them to catch Chelsea, but the fact that it’s even a possibility is an improvement. “The gap was really big last season, but not so now. We are closer but I want to see if we can maintain this level. That is the hard bit.”
As far as the players are concerned, there’s a lot to play for tonight really. Peter Crouch spoke about the recent form from Liverpool meaning that there’s an outside chance of challenging for the league, should Chelsea start to make some mistakes: “Eight clean sheets on the trot gives us a platform for the future. I know Chelsea have a big lead at the top, but we would like to think that, if they did slip up, then we will be there to take advantage. We are not conceding and looking a real threat. If we can keep this up, we can put real pressure on them.”
In many ways tonight’s game could have a bearing on the league title in the end. Confidence will be hit for the losers, despite what the managers may say. If the manager then finds that the weekend’s league fixtures just don’t go to plan then more doubts creep in. The pride of taking a victory tonight is important for Crouch too, or for that matter a draw, which would also see Liverpool take the group title: “People say it doesn’t matter whether we win at Chelsea or not. But it does matter, if only for our pride. We want to finish above them in the group, a lot of very good sides will also win their groups so we need to avoid them in the draw. It will give us confidence for the next stage.”
Crouch’s team-mate and Anfield veteran Dietmar Hamann was also saying how important a win would be to either team. He said: “They know we can get the result we want, even if maybe they were probably the best team in Europe last season.” Before Reds fans get too outraged at what Hamann said, listen to what he says next: “They were probably the best team in Europe last season, but we were the best team in the Champions League.” Of course that means Liverpool have the trophy in their trophy room, and with it being the fifth win, it’s staying there.
Didi says team spirit and morale is on a high too: “The mood amongst the players is good, we have had a good run in the league and not conceded a goal. We are getting results because we are playing much better than at the beginning of the season. We will be trying to get a result that will mean we are top of the group, and Chelsea know we can do that.”
Chelsea’s players are also looking for the win. Despite what their boss might have to say. Goalkeeper Petr Cech says: “We’ve played a lot of games against each other so it is difficult to surprise somebody. We just want to play well at home and keep on winning in our stadium. We are approaching the game as one we want to win at home. We want to play well but I don’t think there is any bad feeling between the two sides at all.” No bad feeling? We’ll see.
Often played up front on his own, Chelsea striker Didier Drogba is probably on his own at Chelsea by publicly declaring that Liverpool deserved to go through to last season’s final. He said: “Let’s not kid ourselves. Why delude ourselves? Last season, Liverpool deserved their qualification. At Anfield we never found the flaw in their system, we couldn’t break down their defensive lines. This season, logically speaking, the group favourites should be Liverpool, but realistically speaking, with the squad we’ve assembled over the last two seasons, we have to try to go further than the semi-finals again.”
Chelsea: Cech, Cudicini, Gallas, Ferreira, Terry, Carvalho, del Horno, Bridge, Essien, Wright-Phillips, Huth, Lampard, C Cole, Geremi, Gudjohnsen, Drogba, Robben, Duff.
Liverpool: Reina, Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Warnock, Traore, Luis Garcia, Kewell, Gerrard, Hamann, Sissoko, Riise, Crouch, Cisse, Morientes, Sinama-Pongolle, Carson, Dudek, Josemi, Potter.
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