By Martyn Herman
All eyes will be on Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers’s team selection when they attempt to end leaders Chelsea’s unbeaten start to the Premier League season on Saturday.
Rodgers appeared content to sacrifice Tuesday’s Champions League clash at Real Madrid, leaving the likes of Raheem Sterling and Steven Gerrard on the bench as his side lost 1-0.
Despite playing down the changes, pointing to the seven games they have to play in 21 days, most observers felt Rodgers was targeting the home clash with Chelsea and the chance to get Liverpool’s domestic title challenge back on track.
Last weekend’s disappointing 1-0 defeat at Newcastle United left Liverpool in seventh place, 12 points behind Chelsea who have won eight and drawn two of their games so far.
While that represents a chasm that already looks too big to close, Liverpool are only three points behind fourth-placed Arsenal and the ambition to finish in the Champions League qualification spots is the main priority.
“Irrespective of the Chelsea game, we picked the team to try to get a result tonight,” Rodgers said after the defeat in Madrid that leaves Liverpool’s hopes of reaching the last 16 hanging in the balance.
“All those that weren’t playing tonight, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll play against Chelsea.”
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho had his own take on Rodgers’ decision.
“Normally, against the most difficult opponents, I will try to go with my best team,” he said before his side’s 1-1 draw with Maribor on Wednesday that stretched their unbeaten start to the season to a club record-equalling 16 games.
“But who knows? Liverpool might play a fantastic match and win and rest players and the players are in great condition to play against Chelsea.
“In this case it might be a genius decision.”
It was a 2-0 home defeat by Chelsea in April that put the skids under Liverpool’s title challenge, and they need no motivating for a chance to cast off the doubts that have dogged them since the departure of striker Luis Suarez to Barcelona.
“We’re Liverpool Football Club, so if we’re playing at home we always have to go for the three points and we’ll make sure we’re prepared for that,” goalkeeper Simon Mignolet said.
“We’ve got another big game to look forward to at the weekend against Chelsea. I think a lot of the boys will take confidence from (the performance at Real) and we’ll make sure we are ready for when Chelsea arrive on Saturday.”
Second-placed Southampton will look to continue their unlikely chase of Mourinho’s table toppers at home to Leicester City who have not managed a point since a 5-3 home victory over Manchester United in September.
The south coast side have won their last three league games without conceding a goal and are only four points off Chelsea who have 26.
Third-placed Manchester City, whose hopes of qualifying for the Champions League knockout stage were dealt a severe blow in a humiliating 2-1 home defeat by CSKA Moscow on Wednesday, travel south to face struggling Queens Park Rangers.
Manchester United, down in 10th with a paltry 13 points from a possible 30 after last weekend’s derby defeat by City, host Crystal Palace.
Despite a wealth of attacking options, United have been poor at the back, not helped by injuries to Jonny Evans, Rafael and now Marcos Rojo who dislocated his shoulder last weekend.
Chris Smalling is suspended, meaning midfielder Michael Carrick may be used in a makeshift defence.
“When we look at the points total, we are bitterly disappointed with the amount we have got,” Carrick said.
“It’s nowhere near good enough for where we want to be. But if you can look deeper than that, there are signs that we certainly believe we are still going to have a good year and a good season.”
“It’s not been a great start but I think the feeling is better than that. Hopefully we can show that in the weeks to come,” he added.
High-flying West Ham United in fifth host Aston Villa on Saturday while fourth-placed Arsenal, chastened after throwing away a 3-0 lead against Anderlecht in their midweek champions League game, visit Swansea City, who are sixth, on Sunday.