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Time for new chapter in Liverpool, Chelsea rivalry

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Liverpool host Chelsea at Anfield on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com) with the Premier League rivals aiming to hunt down runaway leaders Manchester City.

Expect a raucous, fiery atmosphere as these foes lock horns with a changing dynamic to their growing rivalry.

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Since Rafael Benitez and Jose Mourinho both landed at English soccer at Liverpool and Chelsea respectively in 2004-05, there’s been an extra edge to games between Liverpool and Chelsea as they often battled for the Premier League and Champions League titles.

Yet in recent years this rivalry has subsided a little, with both clubs enduring roller-coaster seasons with title challenges mixed in with disappointing campaigns and managerial changes.

Now, both teams are challenging in the Champions League (Chelsea are in the last 16, while Liverpool will certainly join them in 10 days time) and both are in a very similar position in the chasing pack behind Man City. With young, exciting squads the future is now looking bright for both teams.

Both also have talented, passionate managers in Jurgen Klopp and Antonio Conte who are in their second full seasons in the Premier League and both still have similar targets each season: to win major trophies. Heading into Saturday’s clash Chelsea sit in third place with 25 points, while Liverpool are in fifth and three points behind.

The main reason this rivalry has lost some oomph in recent years is because Chelsea have continued to add silverware to their trophy cabinet (the Champions League in 2011-12, plus the Premier League title in 2014-15 and 2016-17) and Liverpool haven’t won anything since the League Cup in 2011-12, while the Champions League triumph under Benitez in 2005 particularly got under Mourinho’s skin after the “ghost goal” from Luis Garcia.

Yet it now feels like both clubs are ready to challenge consistently for the PL title and they’ve moved on from glorious playing eras as legendary figures such as Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, John Terry, Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard.

Will this rivalry reach the heights of Mourinho and Benitez clashing on the sidelines during Champions League semifinals at Anfield, or the former then riling home fans during his second stint at Chelsea as his under-strength side ruined Liverpool’s title hopes back in 2014?

That day on April 27, 2014 (Liverpool fans do not need reminding) reignited this rivalry as a disheveled, unshaven Mourinho — he had been feeling unwell in the lead up to the game and was focusing on a UCL semifinal v Atletico Madrid — ran down the sideline to celebrate the victory, pounding the Chelsea badge on his chest like a madman in his tracksuit. He quickly retreated to the dressing room as vitriol arrived from home supporters who had seen their legendary captain, Gerrard, slip to gift Chelsea a soft goal and deal a hammer blow to Liverpool’s hopes of winning a first league title since 1990.

Getting the train from London to Liverpool, and back, that day, I remember scuffles breaking out between rival fans at Liverpool train station as police intervened. The atmosphere was toxic as this rivalry once again gathered steam. It wasn’t quite the heyday of Benitez vs. Mourinho, but it was getting there. The divide between the London clubs and those in the North West of England in the PL have always had an extra edge with geography and inter-city pride, plus the North-South divide in England, playing a big part.

But since Mourinho left Chelsea (for the second time) this rivalry now has a different feel to it. Last season it was Liverpool trying to play the spoiler for Chelsea’s title bid as they drew at Anfield in January with a wild Diego Costa winning, then failing with a late penalty kick which would’ve grabbed victory for the Blues. The flickers of a fiery rivalry are still very much there.

Sadio Mane vs. Eden Hazard. Mohamed Salah vs. Alvaro Morata. Philippe Coutinho vs. N'Golo Kante. Those are the new heavyweight rivalries in a clash which was one of the main events in the Premier League just over a decade ago. It’s importance is building once again under Klopp and Conte who have so far kept things respectful in their exchanges.

It feels like it is time for a new chapter to be written in this rivalry and Saturday evening under the floodlights at a packed out Anfield seems like the perfect place to do that.


Team news

Liverpool have Joel Matip back in training and he could be available to return in central defense but Emre Can is a major doubt in midfield.

Chelsea’s Victor Moses continues his recovery from a hamstring issue and could be on the bench but Michy Batshuayi will likely remain sidelined.


What they’re saying

Jurgen Klopp on Chelsea: “If we can create a special atmosphere that would help us. Our job is to stay really consistent. Chelsea, what a team, champions of last year, it will be a really tough job. They lost decisive players with Matic and Costa. With Chelsea last year, everything worked. They didn’t need many chances to win a game. It’s difficult to play the same season again, especially when you lose players.”

Antonio Conte on Chelsea not having enough rest before the Liverpool game after playing at Qarabag: “It was a problem to land. I think to get to your house at six o’clock in the morning is not simple to then rest and recover. We’ve only had one day to prepare for a big game and I think this is not right, I must be honest. But we have to do this and today we’ve had a good training session and we’ve tried to prepare for the game against Liverpool very well. I think to only have one day to prepare for a big game, especially to only have one day to rest is not right for all the teams, not only for Chelsea.”


Prediction

I’m expecting big things from this game, and the atmosphere, at Anfield. Both teams are in fine goalscoring form heading and the vast array of attacking talents on display has everything set up for an enthralling battle. With Hazard, Morata and Willian purring for Chelsea, plus Salah, Roberto Firmino and Mane on fire for Liverpool, you can expect one thing: goals. I’m going for a 2-2 draw.

Chelsea’s Antonio Conte continues to demand more transfers

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More players. Now.

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In short that’s what Antonio Conte wants as the manager of the reigning Premier League champions continues to be asked about adding to his Chelsea squad with just over two weeks left in the summer transfer window.

Speaking to Sky Sports at the Premier League launch event in central London on Wednesday, Conte didn’t shy away from talking about new additions to his squad.

“The most important thing is that my club knows very well which is our priority,” Conte said. “I hope to try to work to try and improve our squad, to improve our quality and then to be ready to fight for the season.”

[ MORE: Can Chelsea, Conte handle the pressure?

Pressed on if it would be difficult for Chelsea to retain their title if more new players failed to arrive, Conte agreed it would be tough.

“Yeah, for sure,” Conte said. “I repeat. This league is not easy. You have to fight against at least five other teams. This league is different to the other countries when you find two teams to fight for the title. Here you have six teams who are very strong. You must be prepared to fight.”

Conte has brought in striker Alvaro Morata, holding midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko and defender Antonio Rudiger this summer but he’s lost Nemanja Matic, John Terry, Nathan Ake and Nathaniel Chalobah permanently, while Ruben Loftus-Cheek is one of several youngsters to depart on loan. Add in to that Eden Hazard‘s ankle injury which means he will miss the start of the season and that leading goalscorer from last season, Diego Costa, continues to train away from the squad as he edges closer to a Stamford Bridge exit.

With deals for Virgil Van Dijk and Serge Aurier said to be in the works, Conte is obviously focusing on strengthening his defense which will be a concern after shaky defensive displays in preseason against Inter Milan, Bayern Munich and then Arsenal in the FA Community Shield defeat last week. With Bakayoko not fit, Rudiger recovering from his Confederations Cup exploits and Morata not at his sharpest, Conte’s offseason has been problematic.

In recent press conferences the Italian manager has mentioned time and again he’d like to bring in new players and it was rather telling what he had to say about Matic’s $50 million departure to Manchester United.

“Matic knows very well what I think about him and the importance of this player because he is a really good player, a really strong player and very important for our team,” Conte said. “Sometimes you must accept that this crazy transfer market and you must accept different decisions.”

Does that sound like Conte was particularly happy with one of his starting central midfielders from last season being sold to a Premier League rival? Nope.

Something is brewing behind-the-scenes at Chelsea and Conte only improving the terms on his contract, which has two years left to run, rather than extending it earlier this summer says a lot.

The reigning champs haven’t had an ideal preseason and Conte’s slightly sour demeanor cannot mask his frustration.

Premier League 2017-18 preview – Chelsea

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The last time Chelsea followed up a Premier League championship season under a hard-edged manager, that man (Jose Mourinho) was fired and the Blues missed out on European play the next season.

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Don’t expect the same this time around, as most of those key and sated pieces are no longer at Stamford Bridge and now-manager Antonio Conte has bought the sort of stars who will demand hard work every day from nearly every competition on the pitch.

How will Chelsea fare this go ’round? Read on…

Best, worst case scenarios – Well the best-case is quite literally a quadruple. Chelsea has the depth to contend in every possible competition from the League and FA Cups to the Premier League to the UEFA Champions League. The worst case sees the Blues hit hard by injuries en route to a 6th or 7th place finish and the Europa League, but even this would require an extended UCL run to test said depth.


Best possible XI is… 

Courtois

Azpilicueta — Luiz — Rudiger

Moses — Bakayoko — Kante — Alonso

Willian — Morata — Hazard


[ MORE: 2017-18 PL season preview hub ] 

Morata (AP Photo/Joseph Nair)

Transfers In: Wily Caballero (free, Man City), Antonio Rudiger (Roma, $38 million), Tiemoue Bakayoko (Monaco, $53 million), Alvaro Morata (Real Madrid, $76 million).

Transfers Out: Asmir Begovic (Bournemouth, $13 million), Nathan Ake (Bournemouth $26 million), John Terry (free, Aston Villa), Nemanja Matic (Manchester United, $46 million), Bertrand Traore (Lyon, $12 million), Christian Atsu (Newcastle United, $8 million), Juan Cuadrado (Juventus, $23 million), Dominic Solanke (Liverpool, tribunal), Nathaniel Chalobah (Watford, $7 million).

Last season:

Record-setting Premier League champions
League Cup fourth round
FA Cup runners-up

Star player: Eden Hazard — Sure there’s a good chance that Alvaro Morata will supplant him, and N'Golo Kante is more important to the side, but there was no more electric attacker in the league than Hazard last season as he returned to form (and probably motivation). Antonio Conte deploys him in a way that encourages his participation at both ends of the pitch without burning his potential to simply destroy defenses via direct play or possession.

Coaches’ Corner:  Antonio Conte — The Italian has a new bumper deal to go with his PL title, and has certainly pushed some questionable buttons in casting Diego Costa to the curb and sanctioning the sales of some intriguing young prospects like Nathan Ake. That said, those dollars in have helped fund big buys of Bakayoko, Rudiger, and Morata, who could be at Stamford Bridge for close to a decade. If we have one thing to ask, though, it’s that he allow us more Willian time.

PST predicts:  In the Top Four for both the Premier League and Champions League (meaning a semifinal or better). As wild as it is to speculate, we believe Chelsea may be better money to win the European crown than the Premier League honors.

Chelsea’s Pedro suffers “multiple fractures” to face after collision

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Chelsea are confident that Pedro will not be out for an extended period of time even though the Spanish winger suffered “multiple fractures” to his face.

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Pedro, 29, collided with Arsenal’s David Ospina in Chelsea’s 3-0 win against the Gunners in Beijing on Saturday and it turns out his injury is worse than first feared.

Speaking ahead of Chelsea’s International Champions Cup game in Singapore against Bayern Munich on Tuesday, Antonio Conte revealed that Pedro has returned to London.

“The situation was more serious than I thought because I hoped it would only be concussion and instead he had multiple fractures,” Conte said. “With a mask, and in around 10 days, he can come back to work with us.”

Plenty of Chelsea players have been forced to wear a protective mask in recent years with Cesar Azpilicueta, Gary Cahill, John Terry and Pedro all donning the Zoro look after suffering facial injuries.

The Spaniard could be ready for the FA Community Shield against Arsenal at Wembly on Aug. 6 but with Eden Hazard already out injured for the opening weeks of the season after requiring ankle surgery this summer, Conte won’t want to risk Pedro unless he needs to.

With Alvaro Morata set for his first minutes in a Chelsea shirt against Bayern, plus Michy Batshuayi and Willian in good form against Arsenal with fine goals, Conte should have enough to keep things ticking over for the time being and the opening weeks of the season.

Zouma signs new Chelsea contract, is immediately loaned to Stoke City

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Kurt Zouma‘s long-term future is secure at Chelsea, but his short-term future will be away from Stamford Bridge.

The France international centerback signed a new six-year contract with Chelsea and was promptly sent out on a season-long loan to Stoke City. Zouma made just three starts and nine total appearances last season as he came back from a torn ACL suffered in February 2016.

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“It is fantastic Kurt has chosen to commit his future to Chelsea,” Chelsea technical director Michael Emenalo said in a statement. “He has shown his talent since joining us three years ago, and has returned from a serious injury with a fantastic attitude.

“Now he has the opportunity to play regularly in the Premier League and we will be monitoring his progress closely while he is at Stoke.”

The move to Stoke will give Zouma a new experience, playing for a mid-table side in the Premier League, and it will be interesting to see where he fits in at centerback, battling with American Geoff Cameron and Englishman Ryan Shawcross.

Even with John Terry leaving the club, Zouma was likely to be second-choice in the back three for Chelsea and if he wants to make France’s squad for the 2018 World Cup, he’ll have to play regularly.