Not quite the ‘English clasico’ but Liverpool v Chelsea will be intense
ESPN in Brazil have, for reasons best known to themselves, been publicising Saturday’s meeting between Liverpool and Chelsea as “the English clasico”, a term that nobody in Britain has heard of and that makes little historical sense.
The clubs have never enjoyed periods of success at the same time and there is no geographical or socio-political reason for a major rivalry.
Yet, nonsensical as that marketing may be, it is true that there is a strange animosity between the clubs these days.
Its roots probably lie in the 2005 Champions League semi-final and the infamous “ghost goal” that won it for Liverpool – although Jose Mourinho’s bitterness at the incident continues to ignore the fact that if the goal had not been given to Luis Garcia, for a shot that probably did not cross the line, the outcome would have been a penalty to Liverpool and a red card for Petr Cech.
There followed an intense spell of personal sniping between Rafa Benitez and Mourinho, in the course of which Benitez made the comment about Chelsea’s plastic flags that led to the general antipathy when he took over as interim manager at Stamford Bridge the season before last.
Recent events have done little to ease tensions, despite the fact that Brendan Rodgers is a Mourinho protege.
It was Chelsea who effectively ended Liverpool’s hopes of winning the title in this fixture last season, capitalising on the home side’s naivetes.
A 0-0 draw would have suited Liverpool, but when Chelsea began wasting time early in the game, rather than going along with it, they allowed themselves to become riled.
Chelsea waited for a mistake, which came when Steven Gerrard slipped just before half-time, allowing Demba Ba in to score. Willian then added the killer second on the break in injury time.
Rodgers was clearly frustrated by that, suggesting that any side could set up to defend, although it is something his team continues to find hard to do.
In his recently released autobiography, Luis Suarez reignited the issue of Chelsea’s approach, suggesting that at least one Chelsea player was “embarrassed” by their spoiling tactics.
Chelsea have responded, with Mourinho making a not particularly veiled criticism of Rodgers’s decision to change his team radically for Tuesday’s Champions League game against Real Madrid, while players defended the way they set up at Anfield last season.
“In that game we showed we had quality,” Chelsea midfielder Nemanja Matic said. “Nobody is happy when you lose and they were not happy after the game.
“Now it is a different story. We will play in a different way. But many teams tried to park the bus in front of the goal against us and we managed to win. It is not easy. If you defend, you have to know how to defend.”
Matic’s Serbia teammate Branislav Ivanovic was equally scathing of Liverpool’s performance last season.
“It was three games to go,” he said. “They were fighting for the title and they wanted to win. They struggled in a must win.
“Now it is different. We are top of the table and it is difficult at Anfield, but our team knows how to win there. We know what we have to do to be successful.”
There is a strange feeling about this season, almost as though Chelsea have reached the run-in already.
Not only are they unbeaten and four points clear of Southampton and six clear of Manchester City at the top of the table, but they already have played both Manchester clubs and Everton away from home.
In that sense, the Liverpool game stands as the greatest remaining hurdle between them and the title.
Recent games – the edgy wins over Shrewsbury in the League Cup, and Queens Park Rangers in the league, followed by the 1-1 draw away to Maribor in the Champions league – have dulled the sense of remorselessness, a little.
Mourinho accepted responsibility for his players’ complacency.
“Many times surprises happen when people are not fully focused, when they believe the game can’t be a difficult one,” he said. “I was conscious of it, but I was not successful in passing over that message.
“If I cannot convince the players that the game is difficult and you have to play from minute one, obviously it’s my responsibility.”
Convincing the players that the Liverpool game is an important one should not be an issue.
It is only November, but already it feels as though they are only a couple of tricky fixtures from sealing the title.
Mourinho always wins the championship in his second season at a club and it feels an awful lot like he is about to do it again.
Published: November 7, 2014 04:00 AM