For two clubs who have experienced trying seasons, a burgeoning ray of light shone on Arsenal and Liverpool last Sunday. A derby victory for the former and silverware for the latter offered respite from on and off-pitch struggles that have marred two of England’s finest clubs’ seasons.
Surreally, Arsenal are fourth in the league. They won’t end their seven-year itch for a major honour but, as Arsene Wenger said, fourth place is like a trophy.
Whether Kenny Dalglish would swap last week’s League Cup triumph for a berth back in the Champions League is not as clear.
Reds captain Steven Gerrard admitted he wouldn’t, but the reality is that although fourth place isn’t good enough and doesn’t appear on the roll of honours, its lucre is tantamount to a cup.
A win for Liverpool in Saturday’s lunchtime fixture against the Gunners will only take them to within four points of the north Londoners. Admittedly, they have a game in hand over their rivals for fourth due to their Wembley triumph against Cardiff City, but their seventh spot is not a false indictment.
Dalglish offers Wenger some curt 'advice':
Whereas for Arsenal it is. Their woeful week a fortnight ago, when they were battered 4-0 by AC Milan and were then eliminated from the FA Cup by Sunderland on a whimper, prompted the papered cracks to finally detach.
Invariably though when teams face adversity, they are repaired. Tottenham Hotspur were flattered by their 2-0 scoreline last week, and it was credit to Wenger’s side – not renowned for their resilience – to fightback so spectacularly. In this crazy season they have hit five past Spurs and Chelsea.
In the reverse fixture between these two Champions League-chasing sides this season, Arsenal were a sorry and shambolic state. Defeated 2-0 in the incessant August rain, it poured when Carl Jenkinson scored a freak own goal before Luis Suarez doubled the lead. A week later they headed to Old Trafford for that 8-2 defeat.
Yet with both sides in buoyant mood, there is the potential for another Anfield classic, especially given the stakes. The 2008 4-2 Champions League win for Liverpool and 2009’s 4-4 Andrey Arshavin show - when the hosts were chasing the title - illustrate the probability that each manager will ditch reticence.
Liverpool can’t afford to fall any further behind and have drawn eight of their 12 games at Anfield this season. Pretensions to join Europe’s premier club competition will need to take a lengthy step forward tomorrow, whilst Arsenal can only focus all their energies on a top-four finish.
Key clashes ahead of the super Saturday clash:
Luis Suarez v Laurent Koscielny
“What a goal that would have been from Luis Suarez” has been a recurring phrase aired by commentators this season. For all the Uruguayan’s undoubted class as a footballer, his end product has been nomadic this season, netting 10 goals in 25 appearances. Although that is a respectable ratio, Dalglish and the Kop hoped for better from a forward whose potency in Holland was unrivalled. Thomas Vermaelen’s presence at the heart of Arsenal’s defence is as integral to their fourth spot hopes as Robin van Persie’s goals. Yet with Vermaelen a doubt after he sustained an ankle injury for Belgium midweek, Koscielny will be tasked to track the nimble Suarez. The Frenchman is growing into his role at Arsenal after a nervous debut campaign, yet his most impressive performances have often come against the toughest opponents. He was outstanding against Lionel Messi at the Emirates last season.
Liverpool 4-4 Arsenal:
Jamie Carragher v Robin van Persie
Daniel Agger is sidelined for “a few weeks” according to Dalglish, which breaks up the solid foundations of what has been a miserly backline alongside Slovak Skrtel. The Reds have only conceded 23 goals in their 25 league games, but Jamie Carragher’s probable recall is a fillip for Van Persie, who is merciless against the sharpest opponents, let alone those who are ring-rusty. That the Dutchman may find himself isolated amidst the frenzied flow of the game at Anfield works to Carragher’s advantage. Van Persie is yet to score at Anfield.
Jay Spearing v Mikel Arteta
The Gunners’ movement was more fluent against Spurs last week when complemented by the silk of Tomas Rosicky and Yossi Benayoun. Buoyed by their presence, Arteta had one of his most dominant games in a red shirt, and with Gerrard likely to be unavailable tomorrow, Spearing starting is essential with or without his captain. The nondescript Jordan Henderson and the immobile Charlie Adam are not an ideal shield for Carragher and Skrtel, whereas Spearing has impressed in Lucas Leiva’s absence. Arteta looked capable of stepping up for the cause last week, and the verdict may be handed in on the Spaniard on the basis of tomorrow’s performance.
It's up for grabs now.... Thomas!