Once reserved in the sporting calendar for rugby league teams to tempt decent attendances in the north of England, Premier League football has encroached onto Friday evenings in Britain in ruinous fashion – Chelsea’s welcoming Liverpool to Stamford Bridge.
While the tilt will only allocate 3,000 seats for those travelling down the M6 and M1 to support the Reds, it’s a clash between two Premier behemoths that will pack pubs and directly jeoparidise the attendance and viewing figures for the Super League bout between the Warrington Wolves and Wigan Warriors.
Not that Antonio Conte and Jurgen Klopp will care for that egg-chasing. With the exception of league leader Manchester City, the managers’ technical area tussle sees the two most ferocious attacks in the division participate in an arms race. Who will prove most susceptible to the other’s explosive frontline?
Injuries and suspensions
David Luiz is poised to make his second debut for Chelsea following his remarkable return on transfer deadline day. His expected selection capitalises on the ankle ligament injury to John Terry, and fellow defender Kurt Zouma is still sidelined with his damaging knee issue.
The match comes too soon for Emre Can, who struggles with an ankle problem, but Dejan Lovren can be reunited with Joel Matip at the back after missing the previous outing with a proper shiner.
Chelsea starting XI: Courtois; Ivanovic, Cahill, Luiz, Azpilicueta; Kante, Matic; Willian, Oscar, Hazard; Costa
Liverpool starting XI: Mignolet; Clyne, Matip, Lovren, Milner; Lallana, Henderson, Wijnaldum; Mane, Sturridge, Firmino
What to watch
Both teams do boast some savagery in attack, so this tie could hinge on the fortunes of each defence.
The return of Luiz could be instrumental in deciding Friday’s outcome. The Brazilian’s loose defensive work can often resemble a portly prop-forward trying to corral an unruly rugby ball, and the pacey triumvirate of Sadio Mane, Daniel Sturridge, and Roberto Firmino are well-drilled in gobbling up scraps that are presented to them.
One of Luiz’s greatest assets is when he has the time to dispatch an accurate, attack-instigating pass from the back. He tallied the same number of accurate long balls as Marco Verratti over the past two seasons at Paris Saint-Germain, although it’s worth noting that during that same period the Italian has missed double the matches through injury that Luiz has.
2015/16 Ligue 1 pass completion:
Thiago Silva (95%)
David Luiz (92%) pic.twitter.com/FuBd3QoF9Y
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) August 10, 2016
And it’s also worth pointing out that Klopp’s gegenpressing style means his front three will be predatory when Luiz is in possession. For greater protection, Conte may opt for a conservative back three – similar to what he used during his Juventus successes and Italy’s over-achievements at Euro 2016.
At the other end, Liverpool’s Achilles heel is goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, whose flapping makes him appear to be an anthropomorphism of saloon doors. And the gun-slinger set to march on through and empty the beer taps down his gullet is Diego Costa, a man who’s quite rightly earned the praise of both Klopp and Conte due to his four goals thus far. Whatever you may think of his abrasive antics on the field, there’s no doubting that he’s an entertaining and physical nuisance when called upon.
And with the greater freedom on the flank afforded to him by N’Golo Kante’s endeavours in the middle, Eden Hazard is also returning to his fleet-footed best.
Liverpool’s menace goes beyond Mane, Sturridge, and Firmino, though. Adam Lallana has improved immeasurably under Klopp’s guidance, weaving through defences with greater regularity and, at long last, often concluding his forays with an end product. His wallop in last Saturday’s 4-1 decimation of Leicester City was sublime. If he can try and distract Kante by floating around the midfield, the rest of the Frenchman’s Chelsea teammates could be on the back foot.
The weekend’s curtain-raiser has the potential to showcase more rucks and mauls than the most brutal of rugby tests, and three points for either side would pose a strong argument for it to secure a top-four berth this season – or even better.