Olivier Giroud believes he and his Chelsea team-mates have nothing to fear when they come up against Virgil van Dijk in Sunday’s pivotal clash with Liverpool.
The Netherlands centre-back has earned plaudits for the way he has transformed a leaky defence into one that has the Premier League‘s best record this season, conceding just 20 goals in 33 games.
Van Dijk’s form has seen his reputation rise as he’s now considered one of the best defenders in Europe, but though Giroud acknowledged the Liverpool star’s brilliance he is confident Chelsea can beat Van Dijk and company on Sunday.
“I played against Van Dijk personally a few times and it has always been a tough position because he is very good and very strong, but I’ve scored a few goals playing against his teams,” Giroud said on Friday, as reported by Goal.
“The Netherlands when we played recently, but I won last year and scored at Stamford Bridge and scored the winner at the Stade de France against the Netherlands a few months ago. We don’t have to be scared and no matter who plays we will be 100 per cent focused on winning the game.
Chelsea’s France striker also believes team-mate Eden Hazard should win the end-of-season player of the year awards, and not frontrunners Van Dijk or Man City’s Raheem Sterling.
“I would say Eden Hazard [should win it],” Giroud said. “I think I cannot say [who I voted for], I would vote for Eden Hazard [if I could].”
The Reds are locked in a tense tussle with reigning champions Manchester City for the top-flight crown and it was this fixture five seasons ago that lives in infamy for their fans.
Steven Gerrard’s costly slip saw Demba Ba open the scoring at Anfield and send Chelsea on their way to a 2-0 win, with the trophy ultimately heading to Etihad Stadium and prolonging Liverpool’s long wait for a league championship.
REDS CAN’T LET THIS SLIP AGAIN
Liverpool can rise or fall as they stand on the precipice of a painful, unwanted and still very raw anniversary.
In a near identical situation five seasons ago, the Reds were on the cusp of winning the English title for the first time in 24 years when Chelsea rolled into town.
Jose Mourinho’s side – weakened ahead of a Champions League semi-final second leg showdown with Atletico Madrid three days later – were expected to be rolled over by a rampant Reds side on a 16-game unbeaten run and 11-game winning streak.
But an over-confident home side were subjected to their worst nightmare as a Mourinho masterclass and horrendous individual error from talismanic skipper Gerrard put the Blues on course for victory.
It’s two weeks shy of being exactly five years later and Liverpool are in another tussle for the title – it’s now been 29 years since they were champions of England.
In an ironic twist, title rivals City – just like they were five years ago – are again away at Crystal Palace on the same weekend. They have the tougher run-in, but possess the experience of having been here before and got over the line.
James Milner, while at City, is the only player in Liverpoo’s current squad to own a Premier League winners’ medal.
Gerrard, now infamously, screamed to his team-mates after a crucial victory over City at Anfield weeks prior to Chelsea’s visit five seasons ago “this doesn’t slip now”. You know the rest.
Is history doomed to repeat itself, or are Liverpool finally about to re-write history?
LIVERPOOL MENTALLY STRONGER
Speaking of the past, and the football Klopp has this version of the Merseysiders playing in 2018/19 appears more measured than the swashbuckling style Brendan Rodgers championed half a decade ago.
But this is not a criticism. They have added steel to their silk this term, even when compared to 2017/18.
Okay, so Liverpool might not have a forward player as devastating as Luis Suarez. Mohamed Salah would point to his haul of 32 league goals and 52 in all competitions last season and beg to differ, but he’s had his struggles this season, as well as shouldering a more creative burden, while Suarez was a pure and lethal finisher.
And they no longer have their iconic captain Gerrard – he and Suarez were a potent combination.
Now, Liverpool are a more well-oiled, all-round unit. They were prolific scorers last season (84) but this year they seem to be the whole package – they’re only nine shy of last term’s goals, but have conceded 18 fewer.
Sadio Mane is sharing the goalscoring burden with Salah and Roberto Firmino, while at the back Virgil van Dijk’s protracted arrival from Southampton has seen him morph into arguably the greatest centre-back on the planet.
Alisson, between the sticks, is also a more dependable custodian and stands head and shoulders above previous incumbents of the No1 jersey, Loris Karius and Simon Mignolet.
They were naive and over-confident five years ago. This year, this Liverpool finally look ready to end the Kop’s coveted wait for a 19th league title.
HAZARD WARNING FOR HOSTS
But, just like Liverpool were guilty of doing five years ago, let’s not treat Chelsea as “the clowns” Mourinho accused the Liverpool title-expecting “circus” of framing his side into being.
The opening act to the main event – Liverpool’s coronation.
This time, Chelsea won’t be weakened, they won’t have 41-year-old Mark Schwarzer in goal and their main men on the bench. True, they’re out of sorts this season, but are in a fine run of form under Maurizio Sarri, having lost just once in 10 games since being defeated by City in the Carabao Cup final at the end of February.
There’s also the small matter of having Eden Hazard spearheading their attack – his two-goal performance against West ham last time out suggests he is hitting form at just the right time – or wrong time, depending on which side of the fence you sit.
The Belgian is undoubtedly brilliant but has throughout his Blues career flitted in and out of form, while earlier in the campaign there was concern that his head had been turned too far towards Santiago Bernabeu as a summer move to Real Madrid looms.
But, for now, he is a Chelsea player and he is bang in form. His first goal against the Hammers was breathtaking and will be in with a shout for goal of the season.
Meanwhile, his statistics improved to 16 goals for the season – three behind Sergio Aguero – and 12 assists, putting him top of that chart.
That’s 28 goals and assists for the term – putting Hazard top of the list. He now has 85 goals in 240 Premier League games – surpassing Cristiano Ronaldo and drawing level with Fernando Torres.
Hazard is on fire. Liverpool, you have been warned.
Manchester United will surely have one eye on Tuesday’s Champions League quarter-final return leg in Barcelona, but first they need to resuscitate their Premier League top-four hopes when West Ham visit on Saturday.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side have slipped to sixth following two defeats in their last three league games though the race for the Champions League spots remains tight with Chelsea, in third, only five points ahead, having played a game more.
ROTATION WITHOUT REPERCUSSIONS
With the second leg against Barcelona on the horizon, expect to see a shuffling of the pack from Solskjaer.
But it’s not exactly going to be a case of fielding a weakened team at home against the Hammers. Both Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial are likely to start after brief cameos off the bench in the first leg against the Blaugrana in midweek.
Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic remain out of action with injury and illness respectively, but Solskjaer may not risk Scott McTominay and Fred – two fringe players who have become integral pieces of the puzzle in recent weeks, most notably in Europe.
McTominay’s athleticism makes him a certain starter at Camp Nou next week. He was man of the match at Old Trafford and his bustling, all-action style will be needed once more in order to grind the home side down to as much of a standstill as the men in red can muster.
Fred has endured a difficult debut season in England but has also stepped up in recent weeks, a testing period during which he has seemingly found his land legs after regularly looking all at sea in his formative months.
It’s just as likely, however, that both start, with their industry and energy vital to getting United on the front foot at home quickly against the inconsistent Hammers.
Paul Pogba might also be wrapped in cotton wool for Tuesday but, at the same time, probably needs minutes to find his form, so could well feature.
Luke Shaw is definitely out as he serves a domestic suspension, which could pave the way for a first start for Marcos Rojo in the league this season, with perhaps Matteo Darmian also featuring as Ashley Young is banned.
Whatever he does for the visit of Manuel Pellegrini’s side, Solskjaer will be focused on the big picture. As much as fans will have their sights set on Tuesday and another improbable, magical night in Europe, West Ham is a bigger game than Barca.
United need to arrest the slump of four defeats in their last five games. That starts with a strong performance at home on Saturday.
TIME FOR HAMMERS TO NAIL SOME CONSISTENCY
Things are still not exactly quite right at West Ham. Pellegrini possesses an undoubtedly talented set of players, a squad that has a legitimate case for potentially being the strongest outside the top six.
Yet, the Hammers are arguably the most erratic side in the Premier League.
Their form chart (which in football is traditionally colour-coded green/red/amber for win/lose/draw) resembles a Fruit Pastel lollipop – LLWLWLWDDL is how their last 10 games read.
Hammers fans are clueless as to what to expect when they turn up to watch their side home or away, from week to week.
From drawing 1-1 with Liverpool at London Stadium at the start of February and then earning a point on the road at Crystal Palace, they then only succumbed to a 1-0 defeat at Etihad Stadium against champions Manchester City.
A 2-0 defeat at relegation-threatened Cardiff followed before they found themselves 3-1 down at home to doomed Huddersfield in mid-March. A crazy fightback saw them score three goals in 15 minutes – including Javier Hernandez’s 91st minute winner – to triumph 4-3.
The mood at London Stadium is far more serene than last season when pitch invasions and protests at the board were commonplace – but anger has morphed into ambiguity. Pellegrini’s squad contains stardust in Marko Arnautovic, Felipe Anderson and Manuel Lanzini, while academy graduate Declan Rice is being given space to flourish.
After the preceding lows – they survived the drop in 2017/18 thanks to David Moyes leading a late surge – perhaps supporters must simply settle for at least an improvement, for now.
They are two places better off and have the same amount of points now as they finished with last term, with five games to go.
The Hammers also have a decent record against United – who they nailed 3-1 at home last August – having only lost two of the past eight league meetings.
UNITED MUST REDISCOVER ATTACKING INSTINCTS
One standout feature of Solskjaer’s early months at United was a return to club traditions – free-flowing football, rapier attacks and a need, a desire, to entertain the fans.
Marcus Rashford, Romelu Lukaku and Pogba all initially benefitted from working under a manager who not only knew and was willing to break the defensive shackles the club had been placed in by Jose Mourinho, but as a former striker himself, could offer unique advice to the team’s prime goalscorers.
But in recent weeks, all of them have seemingly regressed. Since posting three-straight games in which he scored a brace, Lukaku is now scoreless in four.
During Solskjaer’s first 11 games in interim charge, Pogba rocketed in nine goals. It’s now none in eight.
Rashford has netted three in his last five, but has played a lot of games and is lacking sharpness in front of goal. Meanwhile, Martial, continues to feel like a luxury player United can’t afford to carry through this testing spell.
His only goal in his last six games was down to a lot of fortune in the unconvincing 2-1 win over Watford in the last home league game.
In the league defeats to Arsenal and Wolves there was plenty of positives to pick out from defeat. At the Emirates, United had 14 shots, four on target; and at Molineux rained in 18 shots, with five on target.
Had it not been for Rui Patricio in the 2-1 defeat in the Midlands or the woodwork and bad luck against the Gunners, the results could have read very differently.
But at home against Watford, United fashioned only eight shots, were shut down against Wolves in the FA Cup and registered no shots on goal on Wednesday against Barcelona – the first time the Red Devils failed to register a single shot on target in a Champions League game since 2005, when they lost by the same scoreline to AC Milan.
The honeymoon period for Solskjaer is well and truly over and now his true coaching prowess will come to the fore. But before all that, he needs his biggest talents to come back to life.