Manchester United, after losing at Burnley, and Arsenal, following two defeats in Manchester, have heard talk of an early-season crisis and come through it. Now it is the turn of Chelsea and Liverpool, who go into their meeting at Stamford Bridge today on the back of a performance or two that fell below expected standards. Carlo Ancelotti's team were out of sorts in defeat at Wigan and scarcely much better against Apoel Nicosia; Rafa Benitez's, beaten by the three decent sides they have faced, were as poor as he had known them in the first half against Fiorentina. Both managers raised their voices with unusual force.
So what is to be expected this afternoon? Almost certainly cat and mouse rather than lion and tiger. If last April's 4-4 draw in the Champions' League was one of the matches of the season, the infinitely less spectacular Premier League game six months earlier was more typical. In winning it, Liverpool ended the London's side run of 86 home League games without defeat.
The greater significance, however, was that Luiz Felipe Scolari, after a dozen games in English football without losing, was suddenly seen as fallible. Benitez outthought him by blocking Chelsea's adventurous full-backs, getting Liverpool players in behind them, and sitting on the home team's holding midfielder. Although it is often forgotten that Chelsea
responded to defeat by winning their next two games 3-0 and 5-0, they began to stutter in Europe and crucially lost to their immediate rivals Manchester United, Arsenal and then Liverpool again. A week after the Anfield loss Scolari was gone.
In looking ahead to his first meeting with Ancelotti since the two Champions' League finals, Benitez significantly chose to emphasise the counter-attacking nature of his team's victory at the Bridge. "We approached the game with a lot of confidence," he said. "The players had a very strong mentality, we scored an early goal and I think that was positive because Chelsea were nervous and anxious. They were attacking and attacking and we had more space and chances on the counter-attack."
He admitted too that Glen Johnson, keen as he will be to get the better of England team-mate Ashley Cole down their flank, will be expected to remember today that a defender's first job is to defend. Benitez said he may be tempted to withdraw Steven Gerrard a little deeper, putting him alongside Javier Mascherano, which would mean dropping Lucas Leiva and Fabio Aurelio after their feeble efforts at controlling Fiorentina's creative department in midweek. "We have used Stevie as a midfielder, especially at home. Away we decided to use Stevie close to [Fernando] Torres because we thought they could be more dangerous. It is a question of giving the team balance. When you talk about Chelsea, a team that likes to pass the ball on the floor, I think Mascherano, a worker, can regain a lot of ball in the middle."
The Argentinian's return means Liverpool will be stronger than in midweek, as they will need to be. Chelsea will be too, given that Didier Drogba and possibly Michael Ballack can return. Benitez admires Drogba but will counsel whichever central defensive partnership he chooses – Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel have been poor recently – not to forget the players around him: "If you just watch Drogba, you miss [Nicolas] Anelka or [Frank] Lampard. A top side is a top side because you have more than one good player. Anelka is more mature and settled down really well there."
Benitez will be looking for more than in Florence from Torres, whom he likes occasionally to damn with faint praise, suggesting that if his countryman "keeps working really hard" he might just make a player. Friday's message was: "The aim for Torres is to have better movement and improve things like this. In the first year he scored 34 goals and last year he scored something like 20 with injuries. I think he is doing really well and he needs to keep at the same level now. That means for me consistency. If he can learn and analyse and improve things he will be better but how long can he be at the same level, you never know."
Benitez added: "I was trying to push the players a bit against Florence but [they] knew. Normally, I'm really calm and relaxed. I am very analytical. If you have to shout a little bit if you are disappointed, you have to do it but normally I am calm. My job at half-time is to try and give the players a clear idea of what is going on, and solutions. Sometimes you need to shout, sometimes you have to be calm."
Calm down, calm down; a mantra that both clubs hope can be applied to critics seeing crisis in one defeat.
ARSENAL v BLACKBURN ROVERS (Sky Sports 1, 1.30pm)
Convinced they can no longer be bullied by Blackburn after beating them 8-0 on aggregate last season, Arsenal and their fans may need to be patient again. Nicklas Bendtner, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshire could add further options.
EVERTON v STOKE CITY (3pm)
A run of five successive wins with only a single goal conceded says Everton have recovered well from a poor start. Diniya Bilyaletdinov looks an excellent acquisition and Louis Saha already has seven goals. Tough one for Stoke.
WEST HAM UNITED v FULHAM (3pm)
It is a little early for either club to speak of a "cup final" but that's how Gianfranco Zola and Danny Murphy described today's derby. In which case West Ham could do with Alan Taylor, their scoring hero of the 1975 final, and Fulham will be glad that Mark Schwarzer, not Peter Mellor, is in goal.
CHELSEA v LIVERPOOL (Sky Sports 1, 4pm)
The second meeting of the season between members of the big four, and neither side want to lose any more ground. Frank Lampard, without a goal from open play all season, has extra incentive to outshine Steven Gerrard.
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