Two of England’s most successful clubs will attempt to make an early statement about their title credentials when Arsenal host Liverpool in Monday’s Premier League clash. After a strong finish to last season, including retaining the FA Cup, Arsenal entered the campaign as one of the favorites to lift their first title in more than a decade. But an opening home loss to West Ham again left them with much to prove, despite rebounding with a victory at Crystal Palace last week.
For Liverpool, simply getting back into the top four would be a major achievement after last year’s disappointing sixth-place finish. Still, more than £75 million has been spent over the summer in trying to turn the Merseyside club back into contenders at the top end of the league. Thus far the results, at least, have been positive, with 1-0 wins over Stoke City and Bournemouth. The performances featured less to write home about, however, and there was a strong degree of fortune about their win on Monday night, when Christian Benteke scored the only goal against Bournemouth, despite the fact that the offside flag should have gone up against Philipp Coutinho.
That will be of little concern to Rodgers, though, as he saw his £32.5 million summer signing get off the mark. Much focus has been put on the powerful former Aston Villa striker and how he will fit into Rodgers’ more possession-based system. But the Liverpool boss is insistent that Benteke can thrive, while also providing the team with another valuable option.
“I said at the beginning of the season that we want the unpredictability to our game,” he said, reports Liverpool’s official website. “Our notion in the game is always to dominate the ball but I’ve been around football for a long time and my emphasis has always been about possession, of course, but dangerous possession. That is important to us.
“Our conditions of our game won’t change but hopefully because of the different types of players we have, and different strikers in particular, it gives that unpredictability to our game, which is important.”
Roberto Firmino, another forward to have been signed for a large fee this summer, is still waiting to get his first Reds goal. But after starting on the bench for Liverpool’s first two Premier League fixtures as he builds fitness following his participation in the Copa America, the Brazilian is now “close” to a first start, stated Rodgers.
Firmino and Benteke have been tasked with replacing the attacking spark lost from two of the players most responsible for taking Liverpool to within touching distance of the Premier League title two seasons ago. Both Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling starred in that campaign, particularly in a famous 5-1 win over Arsenal at Anfield. But after Suarez’s departure to Barcelona last summer, Sterling followed suit to Manchester City in this close season.
Rodgers’ opposite number on Monday at the Emirates Stadium is all too aware of the difficulty of rebounding from the loss of key players. Yet Wenger, readily recalling Arsenal’s failed attempt to prize Suarez from Anfield with an infamous bid of £40 million plus £1 two years ago, has little sympathy.
“Liverpool can make their own decisions,” he said, according to Sky Sports. “They refused to sell us Suarez, so I cannot feel too much sympathy for them.”
Still, he does acknowledge the challenge facing Rodgers. “Let's remember two years ago with Suarez, [Daniel] Sturridge and Sterling, Liverpool scored over 100 goals. You need special quality to do that, and Sterling was part of that.”
Wenger’s side currently trail Liverpool in the standings after their dismal opening weekend loss. But a 2-1 victory over Crystal Palace last week began to prepare the damage, with Alexis Sanchez making an impact in his first start of the season. The Chilean’s return leaves Wenger with further selection headaches, however, as the likes of Sanchez, Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Mesut Ozil all battle for key positions. And Wenger feels that level of competition should silence those questioning the fact that Arsenal have only added Petr Cech to their squad in the current transfer window.
“I always get asked two questions: Why don't you buy more players, and how do you keep them all happy now?” he said. “I believe that competition is part of our job, but on the other hand you have to get the number right. If you have too many players in the squad, it goes against competition.”
There are unlikely to be any changes to the Arsenal team, with Jack Wilshere still sidelined, along with Danny Welbeck and Tomas Rosicky. Liverpool’s major fitness doubt is over captain Jordan Henderson, after the midfielder was forced off with a foot injury against Bournemouth. If Henderson doesn’t make it, Emre Can will likely come in for his first start of the campaign.
Kickoff time: 3 p.m. EDT
TV channel: NBCSN
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra