London: Liverpool can eliminate one of their two rivals from the Premier League title race by beating Chelsea on Sunday and the way the dice is rolling for them they might even have one hand on the trophy by the end of the weekend.
If Brendan Rodgers’s side overcome second-placed Chelsea at Anfield and notch a 12th consecutive league win it would knock Jose Mourinho’s side out of the reckoning and should Manchester City then fail to beat Crystal Palace a little later, a first title for 24 years would be almost assured.
In another match of the day, bottom club Sunderland host fellow strugglers Cardiff City in a match both sides will be desperate to win while defeat could spell doom in the fight to stay in the top flight.
‘If’ is a notoriously fickle word in the often unpredictable Premier League, but Liverpool have built up a seemingly inexhaustible head of steam and with Chelsea having one eye on next week’s Champions League semi-final against Atletico Madrid, the omens look good for the Anfield club.
What is more, City are up against a Palace side on a five-game winning spin that has lifted the threat of relegation – a run that includes wins over Chelsea and Everton. With Chelsea having drawn 0-0 in Madrid on Tuesday but suffering injuries to goalkeeper Petr Cech and skipper John Terry, Mourinho has made no secret of the fact that the Champions League has now taken precedence over the domestic title scrap.
While the Portuguese, known for his mind games, has not actually conceded the title, he has said he wants to send out a weakened side at Anfield on Sunday despite knowing victory there would put them within touching distance of Liverpool with two games remaining.
“I know what I would do, but I’m not the club. I have to speak with the club,” Mourinho said after the Atletico draw.
“I would play with the players that are not going to play Wednesday.”
Rodgers, a former Chelsea coach who worked under Mourinho at the club, nevertheless added that it would be “hugely disrespectful” to all the players brought in who were deemed to be weaker ones.
“Chelsea are an outstanding team with lots of good players and a world-class manager,” he said. “Whatever team they put up will be more experienced than ours. Mourinho is a winner who won’t give up on the title easily.”
Having been deprived of striker Samuel Eto’ and Eden Hazard for the first leg in Madrid, Mourinho would be loathed to risk them against Liverpool and with Cech and Terry sidelined his starting line-up will likely have an unfamiliar look on Sunday.
Whatever distractions Chelsea have, however, Liverpool will be acutely aware that they have a poor record against the west London club with Mourinho in charge.
The Portuguese has won six and lost just once in eight league meetings with Liverpool.
Rodgers has steadfastly refused to get caught up in title talk but should the best case scenario occur on Sunday his side would be nine points ahead of City who would only have three games left to play, compared to Liverpool’s two.
The Northern Irishman’s calm assurance, aligned with skipper Steven Gerrard’s influential displays at the heart of midfield and Luis Suarez’s goals have underpinned Liverpool’s march.
Another player who has been in fine form for Liverpool this season is Daniel Sturridge. The England striker missed Liverpool’s last outing against Norwich but appears to have recovered from a niggling hamstring injury.
“Hopefully, this weekend I’ll be back. I’m not too sure if the manager will play me or not. We'll have to see.”
Sturridge says if he adds to the 20 league goals he already has to his name, he may not be able to stop himself from celebrating against his former club Chelsea.
“I would like to show respect to my former club but if I were to come on and score in the last minute I'm going to be on a mad one, aren’t I?,” he said. “I don’t know if I could control myself.”
Rodgers said Liverpool are feeling no pressure. “People talk about pressure but it's absolutely wonderful,” Rodgers said. “I haven’t slept better. It’s why we work, and whatever happens we’ll have had a brilliant season.”
Rodgers, however, sympathises with Mourinho saying that City suffered when they had to play four days after the Liverpool defeat and could only draw with bottom club Sunderland.
“There is a cost if Chelsea play the same team on Sunday and Wednesday,” he said. “You saw that with City. On the Wednesday they played Sunderland and had a real cost. Mourinho won’t want to go down that route.”
Sunderland vs Cardiff; Liverpool vs Chelsea; Palace vs City