In their first meeting this season at Stamford Bridge on Halloween, Chelsea and Liverpool were on opposite ends of the same path. The same holds true heading into Wednesday's return encounter at Anfield, but both sides are in entirely different frames of mind as the offseason looms near.
In retrospect, Liverpool's 3-1 victory in London could have served as a harbinger of things to come for both teams. It was the first signature win for Reds manager Jurgen Klopp following his arrival at Anfield to replace Brendan Rodgers, while the cracks Jose Mourinho defiantly tried to paper over during Chelsea's slow start as reigning champions began spreading to the foundation that had marked his successful yet tumultuous tenures at Stamford Bridge.
It has since been a wild ride to the top half of the table for Liverpool (16-10-10), who are currently eighth in the table and can finish as high as fifth with victories in their last two matches and some favourable results from other matches. But that is secondary to the possibility of returning to the Champions League by way of winning the Europa League title, which they will try to do against two-time holders Sevilla at St. Jakob-Park in Basel, Switzerland, on May 18.
Klopp has seemingly had to manage his roster continuously since his arrival at Anfield in October, and it will be no different this week with the two matches prior to the Europa League final. Coming off a quick turnaround after disposing of Villarreal in their second-leg Europa League semifinal, a mostly turned over Liverpool squad brushed aside Watford 2-0 on Sunday on goals by Joe Allen and second-half substitute Roberto Firmino.
Liverpool are unbeaten in their last 12 overall at Anfield (8-4-0) and back-to-back clean sheets have the Reds in a good frame of mind and Klopp ready to make one final push to the tape, though that finish line is in Switzerland and not The Hawthorns for the domestic finale at West Bromwich Albion.
"We have to play football. We play on Wednesday against Chelsea, in my opinion one of the biggest games in world football," Klopp told Liverpool's official website. "Liverpool and Chelsea, nice clubs, let's play. If you start resting now, you have no chance a week on Wednesday in Basel.
"We have to do what we have to do. For a few months we have tried to manage the intensity, that's what we have done the whole time. We will do it like this for the next 10 days - we play Chelsea, West Brom and Sevilla."
Despite the constant lineup shuffles, Liverpool are finding goals, especially at home. They've scored at least twice in eight of their last nine contests at Anfield, and Allen's play of late is causing Klopp the kind of selection headaches managers enjoy having.
"In good teams with more good players than you need, you have situations like this," Klopp said of the midfielder. "But he takes the situation brilliantly. ... That's really good. Today without Joe would have been completely different."
As Liverpool are in the ascendancy, Chelsea (12-12-12) are heading into the wilderness this offseason. There will be no European football at Stamford Bridge in 2016-17, the first time that will take place dating back to the 1996-97 season. The Blues will be the worst finishers of any reigning champions in the Premier League era - the best they can finish is ninth, and they could wind up as low as 13th - and the makeover likely to take place when new manager Antonio Conte arrives in London this summer after leading Italy in the European Championship could be drastic.
Chelsea have one win in their last five matches (1-1-3) after a 3-2 loss at Sunderland that may prove pivotal in the Black Cats again escaping the drop. Nemanja Matic had given the Blues a 2-1 advantage in first-half stoppage time, but they conceded two goals in a three-minute span of the second half and took on an air of a side playing out the string knowing uncertainty lies ahead.
"We should have coped. Sunderland felt the energy of the crowd but it's worse that we let them stay in it by not killing the game off," caretaker manager Guus Hiddink told Chelsea's official website. "There was a lack of sharpness in finishing it off. When you take too much time, you start thinking but then the moment is over."
The changes expected to ring in over the summer will get a head start in central defence, where John Terry has likely seen his final match with Chelsea. The talisman, who will be out of contract this summer, will serve a two-match ban following his second red card of the season in Saturday's defeat.
Additionally, Conte likely doesn't have a place in his plans for the heavily decorated 35-year-old, who has won a Champions League title, Europa League title, four Premier League titles, five FA Cup titles and three League Cup titles with the only club he's ever known. There are rumours China could be a landing spot for Terry, who made a promotional tour appearance there in March and can command a significant salary as teams in the Super League are willing to pay premium prices for European stars.
"Of course we don't know what his future is at the moment," Hiddink said. "It's sad that he won't be participating in our last game at home, the Leicester game, the champions, a party time let's say."
Liverpool's victory in the reverse fixture ended an eight-match winless stretch (0-4-4) against Chelsea in all competitions, and they are seeking their first league double in the series since 2011-12.