By Séamus Leonard
Table-toppers Arsenal visit Anfield on Saturday looking to maintain its ever-more convincing Premier League title push. However, the visit to Merseyside marks the beginning of a series of fixtures which will likely make or break the Gunners’ season.
Arsene Wenger’s charges travel north before entertaining Manchester United in the league in midweek. Then the North Londoners will face Liverpool again (this time in a FA Cup fifth round tie) at The Emirates next Saturday, followed by a Champions League Round of 16 clash with German giants Bayern Munich.
It is a daunting 11-day schedule, but one that Liverpool, Everton and Tottenham fans would love to be facing into next season. The reality after last weekend’s disappointing 1-1 draw with West Brom is that a Champions League position has to now be Liverpool’s realistic ambition this season. While the Reds have been exceptional in patches during this campaign, and led the table at Christmas, the lack of depth and quality in the squad has been found out all too often this season.
Center back Kolo Toure certainly needed to hold his hand up after a calamitous defensive mistake allowed Victor Anichebe to equalize last week and give West Brom a share of the points. However, Liverpool should have put the game to bed long before then, and it is easy to forget that it took a world class save from goalkeeper Simon Mignolet to prevent a Gareth McAuley header drawing the Baggies level before Toure’s howler. Another telling factor is that Liverpool was unable to summon a late rally to rescue the three points. Manager Brendan Rodgers introduced defender Martin Kelly and midfielder Joe Allen. While Allen impressed, he is not the kind of player who can make an explosive impact off the bench.
Liverpool may not have European football to worry about this season, but a number of its players have played a lot of games already. There is no doubt fatigue was a factor in the Reds’ inability to generate a winner at The Hawthorns, and it will continue to be an issue until Rodgers can get at least some of those on his lengthy injury list back in contention.
Rodgers went with an unchanged side for the visit to West Brom, but he really needs to learn from the 2-0 defeat at The Emirates when Liverpool was outnumbered in midfield and outmaneuvered down the flanks. The Northern Irishman went with three at the back that day, but the continued absence of central defenders Mamadou Sakho and Daniel Agger means he is unlikely to opt for that formation again. Ball retention will be vital against Arsenal, as affording the Gunners’ creative players too much possession is a recipe for disaster. With this in mind, Allen simply has to start. The Wales international is not a flashy individual, but his simple, accurate passing will help keep the hosts on the front foot and should alleviate some of the issues they have had playing out of the back recently.
The player to lose out should be Philippe Coutinho. The Brazilian playmaker was excellent in the 4-0 defeat of Everton, but he went missing against West Brom last week. The alternative is dropping Steven Gerrard, and that is not something Rodgers seems willing to contemplate. There is also the issue of Liverpool having little to rely on to change a game late on. Having Coutinho in reserve would give Rodgers a serious attacking option to throw on in the latter stages if the Reds are in desperate need of a goal.
Arsenal has enjoyed an excellent season to date, but its recent history of late season collapses has inevitably led to debate over whether Wenger’s side can last the pace in what is a seriously competitive title race. They have proven doubters wrong to date, and have done so, in the main, by beating the sides they should dispose of. Last Saturday’s 2-0 win over Crystal Palace was a prime example of this. The Gunners were not at their best, but a brace of goals from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and a clean sheet kept them at the top of the pile.
Arsenal’s defense has been superb this season, with the presence of club great Steve Bould on the coaching staff finally paying dividends. That said, there are few strikers in better form than Liverpool duo Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, and so Per Mertesacker his fellow Arsenal defenders should be in for a testing afternoon.
Another positive for Liverpool is Arsenal’s results away to top sides so far this season. The Gunners were beaten on their visits to both Manchester United and Manchester City. With Liverpool having one of the best home records in the league, Rodgers was right to say during the week that his side expects to beat any opponent that visits Anfield these days. With the exception of the loss away to Arsenal, the Reds have performed admirably in the ‘big’ games. Let’s hope that trend continues. To do so, however, they will have to end a seven-year run of failing to beat Arsenal at home in the league.
If you are in the greater Boston area, you will be able to watch the match at The Phoenix Landing with LFC Boston. If not, you can watch it on NBC Sports Live Extra and USA Network, with coverage starting at 0745 EST.
Liverpool v Arsenal
When: Saturday, February 8, 0745 EST/1245 GMT
Where: Anfield, Liverpool
Previous Premier League match: West Brom 1-1 Liverpool, Arsenal 2-0 Crystal Palace
League Position 2013-14: Liverpool 4th (47 points), Arsenal 1st (55 points)
Projected Liverpool Starting 11
DEF: Flanagan, Skrtel, Toure, Cissokho
MID: Gerrard, Henderson, Allen
FW: Sterling, Suarez, Sturridge
Subs from: Jones, Kelly, Sama, Smith, Luis Alberto, Ibe, Coutinho, Aspas, Moses
Projected Arsenal Starting 11
DEF: Sagna, Mertersacker, Koscielny, Monreal
MID: Oxlade-Chamberlain, Arteta, Wilshere, Ozil, Cazorla
Subs from: Fabianski, Viviano, Jenkinson, Gibbs, Zelalem, Sanogo, Vermaelen, Rosicky, Miyaichi, Gnabry, Podolski, Bendtner
Follow Séamus Leonard on Twitter @seamusleonard