Liverpool will get their home fixtures underway tomorrow when Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea visit Anfield.
In years gone by a game against Chelsea was no more important than any other, perhaps with the exception of the year Kenny Dalglish scored the winner at Stamford Bridge, a goal which also made Liverpool league champions, to which they later added the FA Cup to make it the double. Now Chelsea are one of the sides Liverpool have to overtake if they want to add to their record total of 18 league titles.
The fact that Chelsea and Liverpool are now title rivals adds spice to this fixture, but the attitude of Jose Mourinho before, during and after meetings with the Reds adds a whole lot more. Mourinho became Chelsea manager at the same time as Rafa Benítez became the Reds manager. Since then they’ve met each other fifteen times in all, and no friendships have been made during that time. With Chelsea’s attempts to poach Steven Gerrard during two separate summers, Arjen Robben’s theatrics to get Pepe Reina sent off, Luis Garcia’s goal that crossed the line without hitting the net, Jose Mourinho’s multitude of comments and gestures – this fixture is trying hard to catch up with the derby and the games against Manchester United in terms of intense rivalry.
Mourinho shushed Liverpool fans at the Carling Cup final, as Chelsea made it yet another victory over Liverpool in the first season for the two managers. But Rafa, on a much smaller budget than his Portuguese counterpart, gradually improved his squad and finally started to work out how to beat Chelsea. The gap – at least against each other – had not been that great anyway. Mourinho watched on in horror as Liverpool knocked them out of the Champions League (twice) and the FA Cup.
The first time they met in the Champions League was in 2005, and Liverpool were on the way to winning the famous competition for the fifth time. Prior to the semi-final first leg, at Stamford Bridge, Mourinho arrogantly named what he said would be Liverpool’s starting line-up. Liverpool won the tie over two legs, the former translator’s knowledge not enough to overcome a very fired-up Reds side, but Rafa still remembers the incident: “It’s not easy for anyone to predict the team now because we have two players in each position. After just two games, people can see it’s fantastic for us because we can change six players as we did in Toulouse and still win the game. But of course, I know such positive judgements will depend on the results. When we change the team and win it’s good news, but if we don’t people will say ‘why change?’.”
Mourinho used the excuse before many a game last season that he was having to make do with a depleted squad, through injuries, but with the biggest budget in English football he seemed to have neglected to ensure he had adequate cover. Rafa has had to compromise between quality and quantity – with the money he’s had previously he could have bought players to give him a top-quality starting eleven – but he’d not have had enough money left over to buy any cover. He now feels he’s finally got a top-quality squad – two or more excellent players for every position. This gives him cover for injuries, an ability to ensure every side that starts a game is 100% fit, and of course – possibilities.
The Spaniard said: “What’s important is that we don’t just have a lot of options, but we now also have different qualities to change a game from the bench, using players who can have an impact in the way Babel did at Aston Villa last week. I hope I won’t have to try to change too many games this season, but if I have to do it, I am able to do it with confidence now.”
Liverpool’s captain Steven Gerrard is one of the players Mourinho will have to wonder about. He suffered a hairline fracture of his big toe in Wednesday’s Champions League qualifier, but the club doctor passed him as being fit to play – subject to the fact that playing will be a risk. Rafa has to decide if playing Gerrard would make his injury worse, or if he’ll be able to play to his full ability in the game. But with Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano and Momo Sissoko all available for the central midfield positions, Rafa has the luxury of being able to leave Gerrard out. But even then Mourinho can’t be sure – Rafa could yet decide to use Gerrard in his less-favoured right-midfield role.
Perhaps the only certainties for tomorrow – injuries permitting – are Pepe Reina, Steve Finnan, Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger. After that it really is difficult to guess which way the Liverpool boss will go. Are Chelsea as unpredictable?
Jose Mourinho didn’t attend his own pre-match press conference yesterday, but had already passed comment that Liverpool’s spending this summer puts Rafa under pressure. Rafa was told about this yesterday and, heading off attempts to open up another sideshow between the two bosses, said: “The managers are not important. It is much better for the game if we talk about players like Steven Gerrard and John Terry. He said he does not talk about other teams, maybe he forgot this time. Anyway, we know we need to win a lot of games because we are a top side, but if you analyse who finished at the top of the table last season, and who has spent the most money over the last five years, two teams are ahead of the rest.”
Liverpool’s new owners, who eventually helped Rafa’s cash-flow sufficiently this summer so that he could get the players he needed, will be at Anfield tomorrow to see how well that money has been spent. Yesterday they attended an event showing off the plans for the new stadium, which is where the biggest part of their investment will be going. They may be spending another £6.8m next week on players though, if Gabriel Heinze is successful in Monday’s arbitration hearing between him and Manchester United.