Thursday 30 March 2017

James Lawton on Chelsea v Liverpool: A sideline showdown to echo down the ages

Eden Hazard will no doubt also be a source of concern as Klopp hopes for the kind of fluency produced so superbly by Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and, eventually, Philippe Coutinho against Leicester Picture: PA
Eden Hazard will no doubt also be a source of concern as Klopp hopes for the kind of fluency produced so superbly by Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and, eventually, Philippe Coutinho against Leicester Picture: PA
James Lawton

James Lawton

Pep Guardiola's brilliant predecessor at Manchester City, Malcolm Allison, was once described as "possibly the least tranquillised football man alive." No-one made much of an argument. Antonio Conte and Jurgen Klopp were not, after all, around at the time.

Tonight, Conte and Klopp will fill millions of TV screens with their extreme examples of touch-line animation. . . and the sharply awakened consciousness of a Premier League which already feels on course for its most competitive and intriguing season.

Chelsea's Conte and Liverpool's Klopp will be aching to produce the kind of knock-down blow Guardiola delivered to Manchester United's Jose Mourinho last weekend but there is at least one certainly. The memory of dear old 'Big Mal' is likely to be rendered almost sedate.

In one way at least, though, all three will be united across all the intervening years as coaches of the highest calibre, men who proved themselves capable of drawing every nuance of talent and character from their charges.

Another likelihood is that the rising stock of the Premier League will gain fresh buoyancy in the adrenalin charge of the Conte-Klopp contest.

Mourinho versus Guardiola carried all the expectations of a serious title fight and at Stamford Bridge tonight there is inevitably similar anticipation.

It is born of the most powerful sense that the elite of English football have not been in the hands of quite such an array of motivational and tactical coaching talent since those distant, iconic days of Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley, Matt Busby, Brian Clough, Joe Mercer and, yes, the mould-smashing Allison.

Such is the brightly coloured backcloth to Klopp's attempt to repeat last season's stunning victory at Stamford Bridge.

The German's confidence will hardly have suffered in Liverpool's crushing of Leicester and he will also be encouraged by the defensive frailty which cost Conte his unblemished record at Swansea.

"This is a good moment for us," he says, "but I'm not foolish enough to think that Conte is preparing any gifts for us. He is a most remarkable coach."

Any appreciation of Conte, three-time Serie A winner with Juventus and a brilliant driving force in Italy's impressive showing in the European Championships, is bound to involve Klopp in a little mirror gazing. The joys, and pains of football bring the Liverpool manager readily to tears and his rival tonight is on the record saying, "I consider defeat to be a state of virtual death."

Can Klopp's men bring on rigor mortis tonight? The manager identifies the "warrior" Diego Costa as a major threat, along with the touchline passion of Conte.

"For me he is a great manager," says Klopp. "He looks quite emotional even when they don't score.

"At Juventus he created a special type of play and had a very successful team. But then I do not play against Antonio Conte, I play against Chelsea and I will work to my team's strengths.

"Of course I have to recognise certain dangers. Costa is world class. If opposition supporters love you that is not a good sign. He is a warrior on the pitch. He was nearly unstoppable against Swansea."

Eden Hazard will no doubt also be a source of concern as Klopp hopes for the kind of fluency produced so superbly by Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and, eventually, Philippe Coutinho against Leicester.

It says much for Klopp's cultivation of attacking bite - defence, of course remains more problematic - that Daniel Sturridge may have to start the game on the bench.

But if Klopp can count on authentic creativity, and penetration, so too can Conte.

Costa's brimming belligerence has so far been impressively supported by the regained touch and poise of Hazard, who says, "I have always been the same player but Conte knows how to treat players, having played at the highest level himself."

Note the barb aimed at Mourinho, the master coach whose playing days never developed beyond the Portuguese minor leagues. The Chelsea dressing room certainly seems convinced it now has the most inspiring, coach in the business.

On the other hand, Coutinho says that last weekend his boss Klopp conjured a "perfect" attacking performance.

It's almost as though tonight's audience doesn't quite know what to expect.

Except, that is, a distinct lack of tranquility.

Irish Independent

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