What an annoying time to play Chelsea. Five games in and five points clear, Liverpool have improbably put distance between themselves and their supposedly immovable nemesis.
But now who should come along? The team that has made it a habit of crashing Anfield parties. Like the trickster Br’er Rabbit, the Blues seem to know exactly where to plant their traps to trip up an opponent that has grown far brawnier than themselves. It’s a reversal of roles in a game that has been going on since Rafa Benítez and his merry pranksters figured out a way to stifle Roman Abramovich’s money.
Now Liverpool look to do what they’ve never done — win a Premier League title. Before their loss to Norwich City last weekend, Manchester City were described in the commentary preamble as a team doing “a fair impersonation of invincibility”. That they went on to lose that match, their first since January, will be an immeasurable boon to the team that finished one point behind them in May. There really can be no overstating what a five-point lead means in the context of the insanely competitive top-two era we suddenly find ourselves in.
Jürgen Klopp will be desperate for three points at the Bridge but, for all their superiority in the early season, his side clearly are not immune to their fair share of wobbles — they’ve only garnered one clean sheet so far.
Klopp likes to blitz the opposition. His core strategy is basically a refined version of one of football’s oldest aphorisms: attack is the best form of defence. A rather handy talent of being able to outscore the opposition has ensured the approach has been translated into a 100% record in the league so far.
It’s when the opponent has the audacity to hit back that the deficiencies reveal themselves. On Tuesday night, Napoli gave us a first peek at that potential as the Reds rallied forwards in search of a winning start to the Champions League. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson — so often seen as bastions for Klopp’s unrelenting approach — were regularly exploited by the Italians on the flanks and allowed them an avenue into the game. Their own team refused to provide much protection during their forays to the byline and were punished for their inaction — Robertson giving away a penalty being the prime example.
The vulnerabilities make the blue banana peel on Sunday seem all the more slippery.
With 11 goals both for and against, no side has seen the net cumulatively ripple more than Chelsea. The recklessness betrays their youth but also hints at the sting hiding behind their backs. Tammy Abraham, who suddenly can’t stop scoring, is the standout. The lanky No 9 has brought a ruthlessness to that position which has been painfully lacking ever since Diego Costa left in a huff.
At Molineux, “Tap-in Tammy” was at the head of a new 3-4-3 experiment for Frank Lampard. So far in his tenure, the inexperienced coach has refused to settle on a formation and instead looked to set out his team according to his opposition. It will be interesting to see if he repeats this particular setup against Liverpool, given that playing three at the back worked so effectively against a likewise rambunctious Wolves.
Regardless, none of his backlines have done, to borrow a term, a fair impersonation of competence. That an average Manchester United side effortlessly put four past this team speaks volumes about their defence.
This side of the Chelsea coin will be of particular interest to one Roberto Firmino. Newcastle United could only watch in awe as the Brazilian demonstrated what he can do with space at his disposal. His sublime flicks between the backline gave us one of the most entertaining performances of the season so far and even prompted Steve Bruce to compare him to Eric Cantona.
If a melee does ensue on Sunday, those calm but clinical slices could prove the difference amid the mayhem. Ideally, however, Klopp will want to avoid that. Liverpool are by far the superior side and a considered, compact game will work in their favour. The more they stray from that and toward the silly, the more likely they are to be pranked once more.