Conte's task is to rein in Salah in his Rush to goal-tally glory

Liverpool's Egyptian midfielder Mohamed Salah celebrates after scoring the fourth goal during the English Premier League football match against Watford on March 17, 2018.
Liverpool's Egyptian midfielder Mohamed Salah celebrates after scoring the fourth goal during the English Premier League football match against Watford on March 17, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

It could be an occasion rife with symbolism.

Chelsea's title defence in effect ended in September, courtesy of a spectacular goal from Kevin de Bruyne, a player they barely picked when they owned him.

Their challenge for a Champions League place could be mathematically concluded by the man who pipped the Belgian to the Footballer of the Year award, Mohamed Salah. Chelsea scarcely selected him more often.

The bare facts are that Salah scored only two goals for Chelsea.

The good news, such as it is, is that their former winger has failed to score in his last two games for Liverpool. It is the first time since October that he has not found the net in successive starts.

His tally of 43 is still more than Eden Hazard, Alvaro Morata, Olivier Giroud and Pedro have mustered between them.

Perhaps Salah may finally be tiring. Certainly Liverpool could be drained by their progress to the Champions League final. Jurgen Klopp has few options to change his team.

But Salah, chasing Ian Rush's Liverpool record of 47 goals in a season, is a certain starter.

He is, Antonio Conte has said, a different player to the one Chelsea sold for just £12 million (S$21.7 million) in 2015. He is a far superior one, one whose excellence has confounded most defenders. Stoke's Erik Pieters was an unlikely exception, subduing Salah in last Saturday's stalemate.

The Dutchman denied Salah space to turn by sticking tight to him; too tight, Klopp seemed to think, suggesting the Egyptian got too little protection.

It had similarities with the effective marking job by Manchester United's Ashley Young, the previous English Premier League left-back to keep Salah quiet.

But that poses a question to Conte. Stoke and United both played a narrow back four. Most of the sides who have looked most naive against Liverpool's formidable front three have used a three-man defence, leaving themselves isolated against an 89-goal trio.

And Chelsea were famously reinvented and revitalised by Conte's switch to 3-4-2-1, instigated eight days after Liverpool won at Stamford Bridge last season. Two subsequent meetings have finished 1-1, but, while Salah was a scorer in November, he was joined in the front three by Daniel Sturridge and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, not Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane.

Chelsea have not encountered Liverpool at their fastest or most ferocious.

Conte must configure his team to defend deep and negate the space behind defences that Salah and Mane relish.

He could switch tack by withdrawing Marcos Alonso from wing-back to complete a back four.

If not, the Spaniard has to raid forward less than usual while Chelsea have to find a way to win to preserve their top-four hopes.

If they do not, past mistakes could come at a cost measured in the millions of lost Champions League revenue.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 05, 2018, with the headline 'Conte's task is to rein in Salah in his Rush to goal-tally glory'. Print Edition | Subscribe