There is little time to settle in after the international break, with Arsenal and Liverpool set to meet at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday lunchtime in a potentially vital Premier League fixture. Arsenal go into the game in third place, six points clear of fifth-placed Liverpool. A win for the hosts and, with seven games remaining, Liverpool could be all but knocked out of contention for a top-four berth, while Arsenal could begin to plan for an 18th straight season in the Champions League.
The momentum is strongly in Arsenal’s favor. A calamitous home defeat to Monaco that cost them continued participation in this season’s Champions League stands out among what has otherwise been a fine run of form. Since New Year’s Day, Arsene Wenger’s side have failed to win just once in 10 Premier League outings. After a poor first half of the season, they have risen impressively up the Premier League table and will now also have one eye on usurping champions Manchester City for second place.
There is further reason for optimism, too. Jack Wilshere, Mathieu Debuchy and captain Mikel Arteta all played for an Arsenal XI in a 4-0 win over Brentford on Tuesday as they stepped up their returns from injury. With Wilshere and Arteta getting through 45 minutes and Debuchy playing an hour, all three could be involved to add significant depth to the squad against Liverpool.
In midfield and attack, at least, there are now plenty of options for Wenger. Aaron Ramsey now looks to be getting back to his best after his latest injury, having backed up two goals in his last three games for Arsenal with a strike for Wales against Israel. Both Danny Welbeck and Olivier Giroud also scored for their countries, while Arsenal can also count upon the supremely in-form Santi Cazorla.
For Liverpool, there have been signs of their fine renaissance just tailing off at the wrong time. Languishing in mid-table at the turn of the year, Liverpool had gone 13 matches without defeat in the Premier League before they went down 2-1 at home to Manchester United last time out to lose the chance to move above their great rivals. They now sit five points back of United in fourth place and know that any further slip-ups cannot be countenanced if they are to return to the Champions League.
The performance against Manchester United lacked the intensity and tempo that Liverpool displayed to soar up the table, but, worryingly it was not a one off. Liverpool also struggled in a goalless draw against Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup quarterfinals, which leaves them facing a replay next week, while they were fortunate to beat Swansea in the Premier League. Manager Brendan Rodgers must be hoping that the international break has allowed his squad chance to refresh for the crucial run-in.
Yet he has a number of concerns heading into Saturday’s key clash. Having only recently returned from injury, Daniel Sturridge was ruled out of both of England’s fixtures, while Raheem Sterling pulled out of the friendly against Italy and Dejan Lovren also missed out on games for Croatia. All three are expected to be cleared to play against Arsenal, but just how fit they will be remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Rodgers will definitely be unable to call upon captain Steven Gerrard and defender Martin Skrtel, after both earned three match suspensions for their actions in the fiery defeat to Manchester United.
Rodgers’ preparations have also been complicated by a major off-the-pitch issue. Although Sterling’s failure to sign a new contract has long been a source of speculation, the story intensified on Wednesday. The 20-year-old starlet, voted Europe’s best young player last December, gave an interview to the BBC in which he confirmed he had rejected a new contract offer and stated that he would review his future based on footballing factors come the end of the season.
Those considerations could well include whether Liverpool are in the Champions League next season, a fact that could be made an awful lot clearer after events at the Emirates on Saturday.
Prediction: Arsenal over Liverpool, 2-1