Liverpool on the slide as Chelsea head to Anfield
Manchester United have ruthlessly removed Liverpool from top spot in the Premier League and defeat for the Anfield club by Chelsea at home on Sunday would leave them contemplating another season as also-rans in the title race.
Rafael Benitez’s side are leaking points to such an extent they could find themselves five points adrift of the defending champions come kick-off against Chelsea, who now look the chief threat to United.
Fourth-placed Aston Villa won a sixth consecutive away league match on Tuesday at Portsmouth and even they are looking a better bet for a title push than misfiring Liverpool.
United face sixth-placed Everton on Saturday on the back of a top flight record of 11 consecutive clean sheets, and with players leaving the treatment room in droves, Alex Ferguson’s side look perfectly positioned for a sprint towards an 18th English title.
It is a galling sight for the increasingly grumpy Benitez, who was being lauded as a tactical wizard when Liverpool snapped Chelsea’s 86-match unbeaten home league record in October with a 1-0 win to forge three points clear at the top.
The optimism that result nurtured has long since evaporated and dark clouds are looming over the Spanish coach. Benitez is also coming under increasing criticism from the home faithful for continually leaving striker Robbie Keane on the bench.
After Mido’s late penalty condemned Liverpool to a third consecutive draw on Wednesday, 1-1 at Wigan, Benitez appeared to suggest his side had been undone by rough tactics.
“It has happened in the last three games. They have something in common I don’t like. I know why but I cannot say anything,” Benitez told Sky Sports News.
Chelsea look to have turned the corner after their own rocky spell and moved above Liverpool on Wednesday with a routine 2-0 win at home to Middlesbrough.
Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Blues will be relishing the chance to avenge their Stamford Bridge defeat.
“Over the past couple of years, we’ve had some fantastic games with them,” Scolari’s assistant, Ray Wilkins said. “I’m sure this will be the same. I’ve got no comment to make on whether Liverpool are cracking up. They won’t be.”
Villa, whose odds were cut from 50-1 to 40-1 to win the title this week, host Wigan on Saturday when victory will push them into second place—significantly upping the stakes for Liverpool and Chelsea 24 hours later.
Striker Emile Heskey, who scored on his debut for Villa at Portsmouth on Tuesday after his move from Wigan, could prove to be a managerial masterstroke by Martin O’Neill.
“At least we are making it a bit interesting,” O’Neill said after victory at Fratton Park. “I’m delighted with how we are performing. The spirit in the side is first class.”
Things are also interesting further down the table with two matches on Saturday particularly crucial.
Third bottom Middlesbrough have gone 11 league games without a win and host Blackburn Rovers, who are just one point and one place above them. Bolton Wanderers face fellow strugglers Tottenham Hotspur.—Reuters