Coutinho, Hazard are game-changers

Liverpool’s recent run of form has been very poor, Steve Nicol faults Klopp’s lack of focus on defence.

To win the Premier League title, teams generally have to tick five crucial boxes if they are to finish top of the pile at the end of the season.

A solid, reliable goalkeeper is a must — no team has won the Premier League with an error-prone goalkeeper. Then there is the need for at least one commanding centre-back, a midfielder who will score more than 10 goals, and a striker capable of delivering 20 in the league.

But perhaps the most important box, and the most difficult to tick off, is the one marked “game-changer.”

Get yourself such a player and you can be the team that turns defeats into draws and draws into victories. The “game-changer” will deliver moments of inspiration at decisive moments which, ultimately, can prove the difference between finishing as champion or runner-up.

When Liverpool face Chelsea at Anfield on Tuesday evening, there will be two game-changers on the pitch, both wearing No. 10 — Philippe Coutinho and Eden Hazard. The result may boil down to which of them makes the greatest impact over the 90 minutes.

The task is more difficult for Liverpool’s Coutinho, with the Brazilian having only recently returned to action following a seven-week injury lay-off. The 24-year-old has yet to shake off the ring-rust caused by his time on the sidelines and he returns to a team now struggling for form and confidence due to a woeful January — Jurgen Klopp’s side have been eliminated from both domestic cup competitions following three successive home defeats this month and are now 10 points adrift of Chelsea in the race for the title after the 3-2 loss to Swansea.

Liverpool, unlike Chelsea, cannot yet tick all five boxes required of potential title winners.

They do not have a solid and reliable goalkeeper — with neither Loris Karius nor Simon Mignolet showing enough consistency — and Joel Matip’s impressive form at centre-back has been affected by his own recent injury lay-off.

They have goals in midfield, mainly through Adam Lallana, and potent forwards in Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, but Liverpool still need Coutinho’s magic to lift his teammates to greater heights.

Hazard and Coutinho are both game-changers who can make a difference.

Chelsea’s greater pedigree within their squad ensures that Conte has been able to tick all five of his boxes, virtually from the outset of his time in charge.

Thibaut Courtois is one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League, with a title win under his belt in 2014-15, while Conte’s back-three have proven themselves on a consistent basis since the manager turned to his tried and tested 3-5-2 formation following those early season defeats against Liverpool and Arsenal.

Hazard is already on nine league goals from midfield, with Willian contributing five, and up front, Diego Costa is the Premier League’s joint top scorer, alongside Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez on 15.

But Hazard’s game-changing qualities are the icing on the cake for Chelsea. At 26, the Belgian is two years senior to Coutinho, with a title-winners’ medal to his name and the individual accolades (Premier League Player of the Season and FWA Footballer of the Year for 2014-15) to reflect his influence on Antonio Conte’s team.

The winger is a more polished performer, more experienced and with a greater strike-rate — Hazard has nine goals this season; Coutinho has six — and he is also surrounded and supported by a stronger and more convincing team than his rival.

His performances during the 2015 title-winning campaign confirmed his status as one of the most influential players in the Premier League. And that billing was underlined last season when, with Hazard enduring a nightmare campaign under Jose Mourinho and Guus Hiddink, the reigning champions finished 10th — 31 points behind champions Leicester.

When Hazard performs, Chelsea tend to win; Liverpool are not yet strong enough for Coutinho to carry them over the line in the same fashion.

Nonetheless, Liverpool’s talisman remains capable of proving the difference between success and failure against Chelsea on Tuesday. He can give Liverpool the platform to win the game, and his superior assist ratio this season — five, compared to Hazard’s three — ensures that his creativity in the final third will not be underestimated by Chelsea.

Antonio Conte quickly shifts his attention to Liverpool after Chelsea’s FA Cup win over Brentford.

A fully fit and firing Coutinho is capable of dragging Liverpool back into the title race, but he will need his teammates to step up to enable him to do so. For all of the inspiration he can provide, it will come to nothing if the back four and goalkeeper are unable to stop goals flying in at the other end.

Liverpool currently have the worst defensive record in the top four, conceding 27 goals in 22 games, while Chelsea boast the best (15 goals in 22 games).

Those statistics alone explain why Hazard is able to be Chelsea’s game-changer more often than Coutinho can for Liverpool — the Belgian can roam forward and try to exploit opposition weaknesses, safe in the knowledge that the back door will remain firmly shut.

Coutinho, by contrast, knows that Liverpool must often score two, or even three, goals to win a game due to their defensive frailties, so it makes it much more difficult for him to haul his team to victory.

Both Hazard and Coutinho possess the quality to live up to their billing as the perfect No. 10, but Hazard will travel to Merseyside on Tuesday night without having to worry about the kind of deficiencies that can leave his opposite number in the Liverpool team swimming against the tide. In the end, that may make the difference in the game, and the title race.

Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_

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