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After a hard-fought 2-1 victory over Watford on December 1, Chelsea kept hold of top spot in the Premier League. By the end of the month, they were eight points adrift of the summit of the standings. A run of just two wins in six games has left the Blues on the brink of elimination from the title race, and defeat here would leave Chelsea with a mountain to climb when you consider how infrequently Manchester City drop points.
There have been mitigating factors in Chelsea’s recent drop-off. They are far from the only team to have been affected by injuries and Covid-19, but the absence at various points of Romelu Lukaku, Mateo Kovacic, N’Golo Kante and Ben Chilwell has not helped. Thiago Silva, Reece James and Andreas Christensen are the latest entrants to the treatment room, while Chilwell’s knee injury is more serious than the club first feared.
There have been issues at both ends of the field. Upon his appointment last January, Thomas Tuchel immediately tightened up Chelsea’s backline. The defense held strong at the start of this season, but it has looked more porous of late. Chelsea conceded three goals to West Ham United and two to Leeds United in the first half of December. They have kept just one clean sheet in their last eight league encounters.
The return to the starting XI of Lukaku has boosted Chelsea’s productivity, with the Belgian scoring in each of his last two appearances. But Tuchel’s side has struggled to break down stubborn opponents, as evidenced in the 0-0 draw with Wolverhampton Wanderers and the 1-1 tie with Brighton & Hove Albion on Thursday. The title is in danger of slipping away.
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The quirk of the fixture list means Liverpool could go into this game 12 points adrift of top spot, despite having been only three points behind Manchester City a week ago. A postponed game against Leeds United and a surprise defeat by Leicester City on Tuesday have left Liverpool playing catch-up, which has only increased the pressure on them ahead of this trip to west London.
On the balance of play Liverpool were unfortunate to lose to Leicester. Mohamed Salah missed a penalty and the Reds created better chances from open play, but they were unable to find a way through. Leicester grew into the game as it wore on, and Ademola Lookman showed the clinical edge that Liverpool’s forwards lacked when he found the net on the hour mark. Jurgen Klopp was left to rue his team’s profligacy in and around the 18-yard box.
Liverpool will not be ready to give up on the title just yet – and nor should they. Even a team as good as Manchester City can have a wobble, and there is still one meeting between them to come. But with Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane set to jet off for the Africa Cup of Nations, January is a potentially challenging month for Klopp’s side.
A victory over Chelsea would be a fine way to begin 2022, though. Liverpool struggled in the reverse fixture: the Blues were the better team at Anfield in August, even after they were reduced to 10 men. Having failed to win either of their last two away games, Liverpool would give their title chances a huge boost by emerging triumphant on Sunday.
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Win your home games and draw your away games used to be a decent formula for title-challenging teams to follow, but that is no longer the case. In recent seasons the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City have set a relentless pace at the top of the division, amassing more than 90 points and winning the vast majority of their matches wherever they are played.
It remains to be seen whether this Chelsea team is capable of doing that. They did win the Champions League last term, but that is a knockout competition and the weekly grind of the Premier League is a different kind of challenge.
In fairness, this is Tuchel’s first season in charge; Klopp has been at Anfield for more than six years, and Manchester City appointed Pep Guardiola in 2016. After another summer transfer window, Chelsea could be better equipped to go the distance.
For now, though, Manchester City and Liverpool are still the two best teams in the division. The absence of Salah and Mane could prove harmful next month, but the Reds will have a strong team out at Stamford Bridge this weekend. Recent results mean the home fans could be nervy, and Liverpool can take advantage of Chelsea’s weakened state and their diminished confidence. Back the away team to triumph in this one.
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|Chelsea vs Liverpool Information
|Chelsea vs Liverpool
|Stamford Bridge, London, England
|Sunday, 2 January 2022, 11.30 AM EST
|How to watch
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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