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50-50 Challenge: Liverpool vs. Chelsea

Liverpool host Chelsea on Sunday in a game that could go a long way toward deciding the destination of the Premier League trophy. We asked Liverpool blogger Steven Kelly and his Chelsea counterpart Mark Worrall to go head-to-head in the latest edition of our 50-50 Challenge series.

Match memories

Stephen Kelly: It’s hard to ignore any period in which your team beats the same club in three consecutive semifinals, but that’s what Liverpool did in 2005 (Champions League), 2006 (FA Cup)and 2007 (Champions League). Nobody will ever forget Luis Garcia’s goal, particularly Jose Mourinho it would seem; talk about haunted.

Back in the day when Chelsea had no history, apparently, the Reds won at Stamford Bridge twice in 1985-86 on the way to their only league and FA Cup double. In that same season at Anfield the Londoners’ "enthusiastic" following were backed up by a supplementary force from Rangers, one of my most intense and visceral experiences in any football stadium.

There was also a 4-1 home victory towards the end of Liverpool’s last title triumph, almost 24 years ago to the day. Just saying ...

Mark Worrall: Being of a certain age, my memories of Chelsea playing at Anfield are riddled with hellish visions of various Blues goalkeepers plucking the ball out of the net more often than their Liverpool counterparts.

On my 10th visit, in February 1992, Vinnie Jones and Dennis Wise rippled Bruce Grobbelaar’s net to secure a 2-1 victory and Chelsea’s first league win at Anfield since 1935! It wasn’t a sign of things to come; more painful years followed.

Only in the jealously derided, so-called “Chelski” era have the Blues begun to lay those old-school away-day ghosts to rest. The 4-1 Jose Mourinho-inspired rout in October 2005, a 3-1 Champions League triumph in April 2009, and a 2-0 win in the 2010 double-winning season were all particularly sweet.

Best of all, though? A draw, seriously! April 2008: It’s the fifth minute of injury time in a CL semifinal first leg tie and Liverpool are leading 1-0. Blues sub Salomon Kalou chips a hopeful cross over from left of the Reds penalty area there to find the diving head of John Arne Riise who directs a bullet-like header past Pepe Reina. 1-1 -- the Kop silenced mid-chant -- priceless!

The rivalry

Kelly: Aristocracy vs. nouveau riche; it’s a feud that’s gone on for centuries. Well, 10 years in these clubs’ case.

There was an earlier North versus South flavour to the fixture, involving a slight distaste for Chelsea’s showbiz allure, but any real rivalry began in 2003 when they became super-rich. At a time when Liverpool were already afraid of Manchester United’s success and wealth, it all became a bit too much for some.

It was worse when Reds fans were informed of wealthy interest in their own club. It gets harder to mount your high horse when you’ve accepted the first sugar daddy that comes along. It isn’t helped by Chelsea’s desperate need to be despised, y’know, like proper rivals, and the role of pantomime villains becomes especially noticeable whenever they’re managed by “The Special One.” There was grudging respect for men like Guus Hiddink and Carlo Ancelotti. I wish they’d been Liverpool managers.

Relations have also deteriorated through overexposure between 2004 and 2009, when there were far too many clashes. Though indicative of Liverpool’s renewed place at football’s top table thanks to Rafa Benitez, people got increasingly irritable, and familiarity certainly bred contempt on both sides.

Worrall: Back in the day, the rivalry was more of a geographic thing. Liverpool versus London -- accents, clothes, hairstyles, music. It was tribal -- it was unparalleled -- it was fantastic and fun! For Blues fans travelling to Anfield, the football was a bit of a sideshow. The advent of satellite TV and social media brought both clubs a global audience, and with it, the associated 24-hour accessibility to every aspect of their fixtures, which could have diluted the matchgoing experience had it not been for the fact that in the past decade, Chelsea have played Liverpool more than any other club.

In addition to the bread-and-butter PL contests, the teams have collided a remarkable 10 times in the Champions League, three times in the League Cup including the 2005 final (won by Chelsea), twice in the FA Cup including the 2012 final (won by Chelsea), and once in the Community Shield.

As the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. Factor in the Stevie G transfer saga, that famous “ghost” goal, the signing of Fernando Torres and the appointment of Rafael Benitez as Chelsea’s interim manager last term and it’s easy to understand why a bitter rivalry has developed in recent years.

- Bennett: An Everton fan's view of Liverpool's success - PickCenter: Liverpool vs. Chelsea "Insider"

Fear factor

Kelly: That will depend on who’s actually playing, with Chelsea’s Champions League semifinal second leg against Atletico looming large. Most Liverpool fans have always expected Fernando Torres to make one final Anfield statement, and what a time it would be to do it -- but will he even play? Eden Hazard is an excellent footballer, fully deserving of awards and accolades in any other season, but will he also be held back for Europe and/or improving fitness?

The big problem will be standing off the pitch, not on it. Distaste for Mourinho’s personality and antics tends to dilute appreciation for an exceptional manager; his puckish demeanour is largely intended to throw opponents off the scent. Chelsea’s February win at Manchester City demonstrated perfectly what they’re capable of, and the recent nullifying of Atletico Madrid was another excellent performance. Ignore the media catcalls; the job got done. “By any means necessary” -- that’s Mourinho in a nutshell, and he is not a figure to be treated lightly.

Worrall: The first 15 minutes. Brendan Rodgers has successfully schooled his players to go all-out on the offensive from the first whistle. Liverpool have scored 15 goals in the first quarter-hour of matches this season, of which 10 have come inside the first five minutes. Title rivals Manchester City and Arsenal, for example, both found themselves behind early on at Anfield.

The warning signs are there for Chelsea, and ignoring them would be a folly. Much has been made this week of Jose Mourinho potentially fielding a second-string XI against Liverpool to protect key players for Wednesday’s Champions League showdown with Atletico Madrid. Kidology or not, with Petr Cech and John Terry out injured, what has been a very stable and mean Blues defence during the course of this campaign is now subject to reorganization.

Whether the changes are minor or major, whomever Mourinho chooses to deploy at the back will need to be focused from the outset if the likes of Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling are to be kept at bay during those perilous opening minutes.

X Factor

Kelly: Luis Suarez may feel this fixture last season cast a further blight on his career which can at least be dissolved by one more brilliant performance. The obvious Footballer of the Year may well feel he owes himself a final flourish. Raheem Sterling is getting better at just the right time, and hopefully Daniel Sturridge can be fit enough to make a definitive statement about the career path he has chosen.

With John Terry absent there’ll be one less person for Martin Skrtel to wrestle with at both ends. However the goals come, this is season 2013-14’s defining moment. Time for a new kind of hero, perhaps? With Chelsea so adept at set pieces, Simon Mignolet needs to step up to a new level.

Worrall: Jose Mourinho. The Chelsea manager holds the key to this game as far as Blues supporters are concerned. Team selection, formation, tactics and substitutions are down to him, and against a highly motivated Liverpool side who are within touching distance of winning the title, the Portuguese can once more live up to his billing as the “Special One” by masterminding victory.

This season, Chelsea have stumbled against teams they should have beaten, while saving their best performances for matches against title rivals -- the outstanding 1-0 win against Manchester City at the Etihad being a prime case in point. On that occasion, Mourinho executed the perfect game plan -- can he do it again at Anfield with a weakened side? In Jose we trust.

Predictions

Kelly: I’ve been generally pessimistic and wildly inaccurate with these prophecies, but a draw does seem genuinely likely as opposed to the usual reverse psychology. Chelsea’s organisation and resilience in Madrid on Tuesday was not what any Liverpool fan wanted to see days before the club’s most important match since the European Cup finals in 2005 and 2007 (and maybe even before that).

Chelsea’s pessimistic wailing since their Sunderland defeat may yet be one final throw of the mind-games dice. They’ve never given up this easily before, and no one in their right mind expects them to start on Sunday.

Worrall: The last time I did one of these 50-50 articles, it was with a Spurs fan. I was astounded that he predicted defeat for his team. You have to have hope and believe in your team when you go to a game, otherwise what’s the point -- right?

At the outset of each of those futile old-school trips to Anfield, I always thought Chelsea would win -- and then one day they did. Bookmakers are offering long odds on a Blues victory this Sunday but I’ll have some of that, with a cheeky Torres hat trick as a side bet. Impossible is nothing!

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