By Séamus Leonard
Eight days after inflicting a humiliating 5-1 defeat of Arsenal at Anfield, an in-form Liverpool makes its way south to see if it can deal a further blow to the Gunners’ flagging fortunes. This FA Cup fifth round tie will not necessarily make or break either side’s season, but a loss would leave Liverpool with just the league to compete in, while defeat for Arsenal would deepen the slump it finds itself in.
Arsenal has seen plenty of seasons fall apart after a February/March collapse, and there is the danger of that happening again this year. Arsene Wenger’s charges have been excellent until recently, and the North Londoners need to start winning games again if they want to end their nine-year wait for silverware.
The Gunners are enduring a difficult schedule at the moment — having faced Liverpool last Saturday before drawing 0-0 at home to Manchester United on Wednesday. It doesn’t get any easier after Sunday for Arsenal, as it hosts Bayern Munich in a Champions League Round of 16 clash in midweek. The schedule leaves Wenger with tough selection decisions to make. He will, of course, want to exact revenge for last Saturday’s hiding at Anfield, but he also needs to balance that with the need to rest players during what has been a particularly taxing period.
The Frenchman is lucky in that he has a decent degree of depth to his squad, though it would be all the stronger were Abou Diaby (knee), Aaron Ramsey (thigh), Kim Kallstrom (back) and Theo Walcott (knee) not all out injured at the moment. Thomas Vermaelen (calf) and Santi Cazorla (illness) are also doubtful for Sunday’s clash. The Gunners are boosted, however, by the return of midfield general Mathieu Flamini from suspension. The biggest call Wenger has to make is in attack. Does he opt for first-choice striker Olivier Giroud, who has not been productive in front of goal of late, or does he take a chance on Niklas Bendtner? The latter certainly has the physical presence to bother the Liverpool rearguard, but he is a notoriously inconsistent performer.
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers also has a selection dilemma to grapple with. The Reds have no European commitments this season, and so the FA Cup is a legitimate and attainable target for them. Rodgers said in the aftermath of Wednesday’s last-gasp 3-2 win over Fulham that he had paid the price for fielding weakened teams in cup games in the past, and that he, therefore, will opt for as strong a side as possible this time out. Liverpool does have the benefit of not having another game for a week after Sunday’s encounter, but that must be balanced against the individual condition of players. Rodgers has named the same starting line-up in the last four games, and at some point he will surely have to shuffle his pack.
An obvious change to be made comes with the return of center back Daniel Agger. The vice-captain came on to shore up the defense in the final minutes at Craven Cottage earlier this week, and he could certainly do with a run out after his injury lay-off. Kolo Toure, who has made two serious errors in the last two away games, will likely be asked to warm the bench against his former club.
It emerged on Friday that Jordan Henderson underwent wrist surgery after the Fulham game, and, although the cast he wore got him through those 90 minutes, it would seem an irrational risk to start the marauding midfielder at The Emirates. Joe Allen lacks the unbridled energy of Henderson, but his ability to keep possession and desperate need for minutes should see the Welshman get the nod.
Rodgers threw something of a curveball by introducing Joao Teixeira in the latter stages at Craven Cottage, but the Portuguese starlet repaid the faith shown in him by supplying the pass to Daniel Sturridge that led to the winning penalty which was hammered home with aplomb by captain Steven Gerrard.
Raheem Sterling was the man to make way for Teixeira in midweek, and Rodgers might feel that the 19-year-old could do with a rest after a superb campaign to date. If that turns out to be the case, don’t be surprised if Jordan Ibe gets a rare first team start. The 18-year-old made an appearance off the bench against Arsenal last Saturday, and his blistering pace would certainly be an asset on the counter-attack.
After two morale-boosting victories, reaching the quarter-finals of the FA Cup would be a continuation of Liverpool’s upward trajectory. Consistency remains an issue, however, and it will take another impressive performance to undo Arsenal on its home turf.
Arsenal v Liverpool
When: Sunday, February 16, 1100 EST/1600 GMT
Where: Emirates Stadium, London
Last FA Cup Match: Arsenal 4-0 Coventry, Bournemouth 0-2 Liverpool
Projected Arsenal Starting 11
DEF: Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal
MID: Gnabry, Flamini, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Rosicky, Podolski
Subs from: Szczesny, Viviano, Sagna, Gibbs, Zelalem, Arteta, Wilshere, Ozil, Miyaichi, Giroud, Sanogo
Projected Liverpool Starting 11
DEF: Flanagan, Skrtel, Agger, Cissokho
MID: Gerrard, Allen, Coutinho
FW: Suarez, Sturridge, Ibe
Subs from: Jones, Kelly, Toure, Sama, Smith, Henderson, Luis Alberto, Sterling, Teixeira, Aspas
Follow Séamus Leonard on Twitter @seamusleonard