Can Liverpool and Chelsea Stay The Distance?

Can Liverpool and Chelsea Stay The Distance?

This was meant to be the year when Manchester reasserted itself as the footballing capital of England. So much was made of Pep Guardiola's and Jose Mourinho's arrivals in Manchester this year and, when both sides came out and won their opening three fixtures in style, plenty thought the title would become a two horse war in Manchester. 

It was only Week 4 of the Premier League, however, the Manchester Derby was built up like two heavyweight boxers with the belt on the line - an early "6 pointer" between the best two managers in the world. Both City and United had invested heavily in the summer and were reaping the early rewards. City then became a prohibitive favourite after their dominant display at Old Trafford, while Jose Mourinho's men remained clearly on the 2nd line of betting. However, since then, United have continued their free fall to drop all the way to 7th, with just 5 wins from their 11 matches. City, after ploughing their way to 5 consecutive wins to start the season, have stumbled their way to 2 wins from their last 6 matches and lie 3rd. 

Meanwhile two sides that finished the 2015/16 Premier League table in 8th and 10th place are suddenly 1st and 2nd respectively, with Liverpool and Chelsea threatening to gate crash this Title party. Liverpool started disastrously in 2015/16 which led to manager Brendan Rodgers being sacked for the wildly popular Jurgen Klopp. Whilst there were signs of progress in Klopp's first season in charge, Liverpool's Premier League campaign was underwhelming with a number of losses to lower ranked opponents. Chelsea's 2015/16 campaign was a train-wreck from start to finish and led to the stunning dismissal of Jose Mourinho just six months after he had led the club to a convincing start-to-finish Championship in 2014/15 . 

However, this season Klopp's men are playing a swashbuckling style of football that has made them the true entertainers of the league. Liverpool have hammered in 30 goals from just 11 games, including 4 at Arsenal and Crystal Palace. The Reds are playing with a swagger, highlighted by their latest 6-1 mauling of Watford at Anfield. Liverpool have already beaten Arsenal and Chelsea away from home and drawn with Tottenham away. Their second half of the season fixture list looks kind with most of the supposed big guns at home. 

While Liverpool's rise to the Top of the Table might have caught a few off guard, Chelsea's surge into second place has been particularly stunning. Their rampant 5-0 dismissal of Everton at Stamford Bridge was probably the most complete performance from any Premier League team this season. The Blues destroyed a decent opponent with 21 shots on target to 1. 

Antonio Conte ripped up the 4-3-3 formation that the Blues had stumbled through the opening six games of this season. Comprehensively outfought and outplayed by Liverpool and Arsenal inside a week, Chelsea had slipped outside the Premier League Top 6 after six games and many of last year's old scars appeared to be reopening for a playing squad that remained, perhaps alarmingly, much the same over the summer. So lamentable were Chelsea's displays that some English papers even speculated Conte was already under pressure to hold his job. Chelsea appeared a team in flux coming off a 10th place finish last year with a shoddy defence, ponderous midfield, and a strike force too heavily dependent upon Diego Costa.

Conte had seen enough and went to work on his favoured 3-4-3 formation that he inserted with such success at Juventus and with the Italian national team. The result is Chelsea have now won 5 straight games, scoring 17 goals in the process while conceding none. Conte's system is working better than any Blues fans or even players might have believed. Players that had been derided or looked like misfits like David Luiz, Nemanja Matic, Victor Moses and Marcus Alonso, suddenly fitted into Conte's system like a glove. Eden Hazard and Diego Costa are two players that appear totally rejuvenated under Conte. Chelsea are currently displaying the form of champions. 

Liverpool and Chelsea have developed a bitter rivalry over the past decade, with several hugely controversial Champions League knock-out matches. Liverpool dramatically saw off Chelsea in the 2005 and 2007 Champions League Semi-Finals. Chelsea fans and Jose Mourinho will always remember with dread Luis Garcia's "Ghost Call" in the 2005 Champion's League Semi-Final. Liverpool went on to win the Champion's League with a famous Penalty Shoot Out victory over AC Milan in Istanbul. Whilst in 2007 it was a Penalty Shoot Out that saw Chelsea wither under the pressure at Anfield once more as Liverpool advanced to another final only to be beaten by Milan. 

The wheel has turned of late, however, with Chelsea winning Champion's League knock-out Semi-Finals and Quarter Finals against Liverpool in 2008 and 2009. Under caretaker manager Roberto Di Matteo, Chelsea won a pulsating FA Cup Final back in 2012.  No Liverpool fan will ever forget Steven Gerrard's slip in 2013/14, as a second string Chelsea side shocked Liverpool 2-0 on their own patch. Liverpool's first League Title in 24 years heartbreakingly crumbled away from within their grasp as Jose Mournho went on one of his infamous charges down the touchline in celebration. 

Fast forward a couple of years and as things stand Antonio Conte and Jurgen Klopp might be able to play out the next big chapter in Liverpool and Chelsea's rivalry. Whilst there remains a long way to go, both sides have the clear advantage of no European Football this season, whilst the likes of Manchester City and Arsenal are likely exerting time and energy into deep runs in the Champions League. Other title hopefuls, United and Spurs, could well be playing Europa League football until late in the season. With the likes of Guardiola and Mourinho still coming to grips with their squad, Liverpool and Chelsea may not get a free shot like this again for some time.