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Chelsea vs Liverpool: Why Africa’s stars will decide Sunday showdown

14:18 BST 21/09/2019
Fikayo Tomori and Tammy Abraham Chelsea
The Reds travel to Stamford Bridge on Sunday in a key Premier League clash; can their African trio silence the Blues' Anglo-Nigerian duo?

by James O'Conners

When Liverpool and Chelsea met in the Uefa Super Cup in August, the Reds triumphed on penalties after a brace by the outstanding Sadio Mane. 

Once again, expect African players—and key duels between the continent’s stars—to prove decisive in Sunday’s heavyweight Premier League showdown.

The Senegal winger could again be key, whilst Fikayo Tomori may find himself in direct confrontation with Mohamed Salah on the opposite flank.

Up front, Chelsea could start Tammy Abraham against Joel Matip, who had a difficult evening at times against Napoli on Tuesday.

Both of these sides lost their Uefa Champions League openers in midweek. Liverpool had a dubious penalty given against them, whilst Virgil Van Dijk gave the ball away for a late second goal. Chelsea, meanwhile, dominated possession without providing a great deal of service to Abraham and eventually lost to a second-half goal from a freekick.

In attack for Liverpool, neither Mane nor Salah had nearly as much effect as usual. With a back four and two defensive midfielders who did not budge, Napoli compressed the space for Roberto Firmino to operate between the lines.

That meant little link-play for the two wide forwards, and most of their best chances came on the break. Salah, in particular was a huge weapon in the opening period in the space behind Napoli’s left back, Mario Rui. Kalidou Koulibaly had to race across to make some crucial interventions in the channels.

Against a Chelsea side expected to play with a back three, it could be Tomori tasked with covering Salah on transitions behind Chelsea’s left wing-back, whether that is Marcos Alonso or Emerson. That will be so easy task for the 21-year-old, but he has taken every challenge in his stride so far this season.

In one attack against Napoli, Salah outmuscled Koulibaly and left the Senegal man on the floor. 

Tomori will need to be physically strong to go with his own searing pace in order to contain the Egyptian. Chelsea coach Frank Lampard played with the 27-year-old at Stamford Bridge, and praised his transformation since those days.

“The player that [Salah] is now or that came back to Liverpool I think you have to say huge credit is due,” Lampard said earlier this week. “You don’t have to search for anything more than to look at Mo himself. 

“He went onto be the superstar he is now. It is completely credit to Mo himself.”

In attack, Abraham should keep his place. After coming on in the Uefa Super Cup against Liverpool, he won a penalty and linked play well. However, starting this match would be his biggest test in a Chelsea shirt so far. Considering the pace and power of Van Dijk, he may instead focus his attentions on Matip.

Although the Cameroon man recovered well, his opening 30 minutes in Naples were far from his best. He gave the ball away when closed down in the build-up on several occasions in the first half, whilst the speed of Napoli’s front four caused him problems.

Lorenzo Insigne made a run off the back of the Liverpool man in the 11th minute and had a decent opening and twice Hirving Lozano received in front of Matip and got wrong-side of him with quick turns. On another occasion, he turned his back on a shot.

Since coming back into the side last season, Matip has generally been excellent and has deservedly kept his place ahead of Joe Gomez. However, Abraham will look at his issues in midweek against good movement in-behind or skill between-the-lines and fancy his chances.

Jurgen Klopp called the 21-year-old Chelsea striker a £60 million forward on Friday, and would have been aware of him for many years as Abraham’s Chelsea debut came in 2016 against the German’s Liverpool. 

A new five-year contract is being mentioned for the striker at a rumoured £100,000 a week, so he will want to prove his value against the European champions.

In midweek, Chelsea rarely delivered crosses towards him in the box and with Mason Mount going off injured early on, Abraham struggled to link play with Willian and Pedro, two players he has not played with all that much this season.

Whilst two African duos could very well be in direct competition, Mane will surely be on the left flank for Liverpool. He was used centrally in the Uefa Super Cup until Firmino came on at half-time. That transformed Mane’s display as he set up one goal and provided several other good touches.

The focus of midweek was again the brewing strain between Salah and Mane’s relationship. The latter’s over-hit pass for his teammate is being blamed for Liverpool’s defeat, with both Phil Thompson and Jamie Carragher saying the Senegal man should be gone alone.

"I remember it was two versus one when Mane and Salah went through,” former Liverpool skipper Thompson told Sky Sports, “and I believe Mane has made the wrong decision trying to find Salah and he has over-hit the ball."

Carragher believes the problem between the duo has been festering for a while, but that Mane was still wrong to pass instead of going alone.

“There is no way Mane lost his head solely because he did not receive a few passes against Burnley,” Carragher said in his column with The Telegraph. "His frustration will have been gathering for months, ensuring it only needed a trigger to bring it into the open.
 
“Ironically, I felt Mane was too unselfish in the Champions League game against Napoli in midweek, trying to pass to Salah when he should have been going alone.”
This game represents the perfect chance for the star duo to put any issues aside and make a huge statement in the title race, whilst this could also be the game where Tomori and Abraham truly arrive as top-level players…or one where they show how far they still have to go.