Who would have thought at the start of the season that just one defeat in the Premier League can dramatically alter the narrative of Liverpool’s season?
Jurgen Klopp’s side has undoubtedly transformed into a ruthless, well-oiled machine after missing out narrowly on the Premier League title last season, mercilessly putting teams to bed despite not playing at their best on several occasions.
Records were smashed on a weekly basis; they sit comfortably at the top with a massive 22 points above the mighty Manchester City and have found a way to beat every single team in the league this campaign.
So when everyone witnessed the first major glitch at Vicarage Road over the weekend, the footballing world clearly (over)reacted and went into overdrive – Manchester United and Arsenal fans celebrated the result as if it is a victory for their respective teams; memes were created questioning the quality of the team and talks of the Reds being just an average side surfaced on every social media platform.
So in a blink of an eye – or rather in just 90 minutes – a whole lot more emphasis is placed on the FA Cup fifth round at Stamford Bridge tonight.
The Reds travel to face Chelsea knowing that a defeat might turn out to be more damaging on the entire season than it actually is on the surface – not just a cup exit – especially with the Champions League just around the corner.
The runaway leaders will want to bounce back from the defeat over the weekend quickly – something they clearly do not have much of a chance at this season, considering how good they have been – knowing that another poor performance will not do their confidence any good, while a victory can see them swiftly regain their momentum as they prepare to host Atletico Madrid in another important European night.
Which really leads us to the biggest pre-match talking point – how should Klopp line up his team tonight?
It is obvious that Klopp was never one to prioritize the domestic cups too much – we can all just take a quick glance at the team he selected to face rivals Everton in the third-round of the FA Cup.
But with the wounds they suffered against the Hornets still fresh, will he be tempted to field a stronger team against Chelsea tonight – knowing a victory will not only secure a place in the quarter-finals, but can also be the perfect platform to reignite the spark required to finish the campaign the way they started?
Yes, he should rest his players
The reasons to give his senior players a break are plain and simple.
They host Diego Simeone’s side in less than 10 days with a one goal deficit to overcome – a thankless task that requires a mammoth effort from the Reds to stand a chance against a resolute Atletico team.
It is also a job that will surely require all their key players available, and with Jordan Henderson still out, we are talking about literally everyone else in Klopp’s strongest eleven.
Will it be worth taking a risk to play the likes of Virgil van Dijk or Sadio Mane for a place in the next round of the FA Cup, with the quality of some of the remaining teams left in the competition meant that there is still all to play for? Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United are still all there in the mix, with a couple of them likely to place the FA Cup higher up in their priorities.
Playing more of the kids once again will also further drive home the faith Klopp has in his squad, granting the youngsters who brought the team to this stage of the competition yet another chance to write an incredible chapter in their budding careers.
The victories over Shrewsbury and Everton gave the likes of Curtis Jones, Harvey Elliott and Neco Williams the perfect platform to showcase their exquisite talents, while the rest of the team displayed the kind of hunger and desire needed to succeed at the elite level.
Yes, Frank Lampard’s men are without a shadow of a doubt stronger opponents – but with the earlier elimination the young Reds faced in the Carabao Cup, tonight’s encounter will likely serve as the final senior game for most of the players this season, who will be eager for an opportunity to extend their fairy-tale run.
A potential draw and a replay will also no longer be a concern for Klopp – who clearly expressed his frustrations in the previous rounds about the potential fixture pile-up – as the fifth round will mean that the games are all decided in one game of football.
The potential injuries his key players might pick up is clearly the biggest factor weighing on the German manger’s mind, while he will also surely be tempted to have one eye on the quarter-final spot.
No, he should go with his strongest available team
Chelsea are clearly a quality team, and on their day they have the ability to hurt anyone. They might not have been at their best lately – but so have Liverpool – and Lampard will be desperate for a victory.
The heavy first-leg defeat to Bayern Munich meant that their hope for a prolonged Champions League run is effectively over, with the FA Cup the only silverware left he can win in his first season at the helm. A win over Liverpool can also help spur his players on for the last leg of the season, as they look to overcome their pretty dire form of late and secure the top four position.
This means that it is unlikely that too many key players will be rested for the Blues, and Klopp might just have to match that to come out of Stamford Bridge victorious. With Henderson still out, the idea of resting the likes of van Dijk and Firmino will seriously weaken the spine of the team – while their deputies Dejan Lovren and Divock Origi have hardly covered themselves in glory in recent appearances.
Remaining in the FA Cup will also still leave the Reds in the running for a historic treble, a feat that Liverpool fans would surely dream about – an accomplishment that only their arch-rival Manchester United have achieved. It is of course still early days, with the tricky second-leg European tie still to navigate.
But with the Premier League trophy effectively already in the cabinet, who is stopping the Kop from dreaming a little more?
And there is the talk of momentum going on as well: many are suggesting that Klopp should field his strongest available side – which is arguably the side that fell to Watford – to provide the perfect opportunity for his team to show the reaction he always demanded, and revitalise the season after a string of poor performances.
A convincing performance and positive result against Chelsea will surely help to restore some of the belief ebbed away by Nigel Pearson’s side, and what better way than having the same team bounce back with a strong showing?
Klopp will also take into consideration the Premier League fixture against Bournemouth over the weekend – perhaps with the commanding 22-point gap they have, they can afford to give the first team players a rest against the Cherries instead?
The players’ match fitness will still then be sharp enough when they take on Atletico, while the risk of having too many tired legs can be eliminated with a full week of recovery.
Of course this is not exactly a situation of choosing between a rock and a hard place for Klopp, he can quite easily line the team up with a blend of both youth and experience. There are some good news as he welcomes back Joe Gomez and James Milner, providing him with more experienced options at his disposal.
We are thinking that Klopp will actually field a surprisingly strong team tonight, with perhaps only Jones featuring in the starting line-up as one of the youngsters from the previous rounds. We will not be surprised if van Dijk and at least two of the front three starts, while other senior players like Adam Lallana, Naby Keita and Milner are given the chance.
It is a dilemma that Klopp has to manage sensibly as his actions will surely be placed under the microscope tonight, but as he rightly puts after the Watford game – regardless of the result against Chelsea, it will be far from “the biggest catastrophe in football”.
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