Liverpool must reluctantly subject themselves to the after-glow of Chelsea’s Premier League title triumph today as they seek to keep their slim hopes of Champions League qualification flickering.
A year ago, the teams were vying for the title and despite Chelsea puncturing Liverpool’s late-season momentum with a 2-0 win at Anfield, it was Brendan Rodgers’s side who finished higher in the table.
Now, it is Chelsea who are champions, after last weekend’s 1-0 win over Crystal Palace, with Liverpool a huge 22 points behind them and in the unfortunate position of having to give their rivals a guard of honour.
Rodgers’s men go into the weekend four points adrift of Manchester United, who occupy the fourth and final Champions League qualifying berth ahead of their trip to Palace on Saturday.
Victory for United there would effectively oblige Liverpool to condemn Jose Mourinho to only the second home league defeat of his time as Chelsea manager in order to remain in top-four contention, but Rodgers remains optimistic.
“We’re going into the game at the weekend looking to win,” said the Liverpool manager.
“Chelsea are obviously deserved champions. They’ve been the best team, but all we can do is control the last three games, look to win those and see where we end up. I’m purely focused on the game.
“I congratulated (Mourinho). They’re the deserving champions and to win it with a few games to go is obviously pleasing for him.
“But it doesn’t take away from what we’re looking to do and we want to finish the season strong.”
Rodgers will take encouragement from his side’s performance on their last visit to Stamford Bridge, when Chelsea needed an extra-time header from Branislav Ivanovic to secure victory in the League Cup semi-finals.
Mourinho may also elect to rotate his squad, but he has set his players the target of finishing the campaign on 92 points by winning their last three games.
“We want to win our matches,” said Mourinho, whose side are unbeaten in their last seven encounters with Liverpool.
“We have three difficult games. We don’t need to win, but we want to try to win points.
“For many months we had no defeats, but I can’t do anything. I can just enjoy the title, which is the most important thing.”
Today’s game will be the final time Mourinho comes up against Steven Gerrard in a Liverpool shirt before the Anfield club’s captain leaves for the Los Angeles Galaxy at the season’s end.
Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea 12 months ago sparked Liverpool’s finishing-straight collapse and the 34-year-old has endured a frustrating campaign, compounded by the recent loss to Aston Villa in the FA Cup semi-finals.
But Mourinho paid a handsome tribute to the former England skipper in his pre-match media conference, describing him as “one of my favourite enemies” and revealing that he had tried to sign him for Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid.
Gerrard has started three of Liverpool’s last four matches and will hope to do so again as he gears up for an emotional Anfield send-off against Palace next weekend.
Rodgers revealed on Friday that Daniel Sturridge will be out until September after undergoing hip surgery, but fellow striker Mario Balotelli could make his return against Chelsea following a foot injury.
Midfielder Lucas Leiva is in contention to start, but centre-back Mamadou Sakho remains sidelined with a hamstring problem.
Mourinho must once again decide whether to take a risk with top scorer Diego Costa’s troublesome hamstrings, which have kept the Spain international out of action for over a month.
“Diego wants to play, but I will protect him all the way,” Mourinho said.
“We need to find a balance between the risk and the desire.”
Playmaker Oscar will definitely miss out due to a thigh problem that has ruled him out of Brazil’s Copa America campaign.