2:45pm ET, live in the US on FSC
Last four head-to-head:
0-2 Arsenal (a) 09.02.12
1-2 Arsenal (h) 03.03.12
2-0 Liverpool (a) 08.20.11
1-1 (a) 04.17.11
Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-3 Oldham (a); 5-0 Norwich (h); 1-2 United (a)
Arsenal: 3-2 Brighton (a); 5-1 West Ham (h); 1-2 Chelsea (a)
Liverpool: Suarez 16; Gerrard 5; Agger, Skrtel, Sterling, Sturridge 2; Cole, Downing, Enrique, Henderson, Johnson, Şahin 1
Arsenal: Walcott 10; Cazorla, Giroud 8; Podolski 7; Arteta 4; Gervinho 3; Koscielny, Mertesacker, Oxlade-Chamberlain 1
Referee: Kevin Friend
Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Carragher Agger Enrique
Henderson Suarez Downing
It goes without saying that Liverpool need to put Oldham out of the memory, as quickly as possible. Except to respond to the setback. Liverpool have become fairly competent at responding to setbacks – not losing back-to-back matches no matter the competition yet this season – although it'd probably be better if there were no setbacks in the first place.
Johnson, Enrique, and Reina will all return, a much-needed boost for Liverpool's defense. Agger will also come back into the XI after remaining on Merseyside for the FA Cup tie. So who'll be the fourth defender: Carragher or Skrtel? While mostly untested, Carragher was excellent against Norwich. Skrtel was the opposite of excellent at Oldham, but was surrounded by three inexperienced defenders and a back-up keeper. The Slovakian is almost always much better when paired with Agger, and often hapless when he isn't. Carragher improves Liverpool's defensive organization. Carragher's pace against Arsenal terrifies. Still, that Carragher was left out against Oldham, requiring Suarez to be the stand-in captain with Gerrard also on the bench, makes me think that he'll start tomorrow.
Liverpool's midfield in the reverse fixture, containing Gerrard, Allen, and Şahin (with the captain as the most advanced midfielder), was wholly outclassed last September. And Sunday's match at Oldham demonstrated how exposed Liverpool's tender underbelly can be with Suarez as a #10. That might not necessarily be the case with Gerrard and Lucas returning to the side, but it's still a concern as Arsenal's three-man central midfield is one of the side's strongest features: full of clever movement and able to play keep away.
That said, Henderson ostensibly on the flank, dropping into the middle when Liverpool were out of possession against Norwich, could offer more protection than Borini or Sterling did on Sunday. This formation has had some elements of Dalglish's 4-2-2-2 used in the run-in during the 2010-11 season, the same formation Liverpool used when the two sides drew 1-1 at the Emirates in April 2011.
There are, however, a couple of caveats. While both sides play 4-2-3-1, Arsenal are obviously not Norwich. Walcott and Sagna bombing down Liverpool's left is a bit different than Russell Martin and Robert Snodgrass; two from Diaby, Wilshere, Ramsey, and Arteta will control the ball a bit better than Tettey and Bradley Johnson. In addition, with Enrique likely to return, Johnson won't be playing on the left. I'm nowhere near convinced Enrique can replicate Johnson's control of the entire left flank. My best guess is that means Liverpool swap the wingers, with Henderson tucked in on the right and Downing as an orthodox left-winger ahead of Enrique. Or maybe it means that Liverpool will revert to a more traditional three-man midfield, with Henderson ahead of the Gerrard-Lucas duo, and Sturridge potentially left on the bench after a full 90 minutes on Sunday or either him or Suarez used as a wide forward.
Arsenal are currently sixth in the league, three points ahead of Liverpool. So far this month, they've lost to Chelsea and Manchester City and were held at Southampton, but the last league victory, a 5-1 win at West Ham, demonstrates just how potent the Gunners can be. Level at halftime, Arsenal scored four in 12 minutes after the restart; just about every attack ended with a goal, one on a set play and three on blitzkrieg counters. Something that Liverpool will hopefully remember from the last meeting, with the first-half winner coming on the break after Liverpool lost possession deep in Arsenal's half.
Unlike Liverpool, Arsenal successfully rested key players in the FA Cup and still won, albeit by the skin of their teeth. Walcott, Wilshere, Gibbs, Cazorla, and Sagna were left out of Saturday's starting XI, although the first three came off the bench in the final 25 minutes, with the newly-resigned striker/winger scoring an 86th-minute winner.
Arteta and Vermaelen are both questionable, but should be fit – the latter more likely to return to the side than the former. Arteta's missed the last five matches, Vermalen went off with a knock against West Ham. Coquelin is still injured, while Gervinho remains at the African Cup of Nations.
Arsenal's biggest line-up question is whether Giroud or Walcott starts up front. Each presents a different, frightening problem. Liverpool's defense has been exposed by pace, especially on the counter attack, and especially if Carragher's present. However, Giroud's strength and aerial prowess is a similar challenge as Benteke, Matt Smith, Jon Walters, et al – all those physical, excellent headers who've caused Liverpool so many problems. Either way, Liverpool's defense will be rigorously tested.
After seeing how Liverpool struggled on Sunday, even with a markedly different defense, Giroud is probably more likely. The Frenchman has started five of the last six matches, scoring a brace in Arsenal's last two. Which would make the expected XI: Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs; Diaby, Wilshere; Walcott, Cazorla, Podolski; Giroud. If Walcott starts up front, Wilshere will probably move into the attacking line of three with either Arteta or Ramsey coming into midfield.
The next two matches will go a long way in determining the course of Liverpool's league campaign. Trips to Arsenal and Manchester City are arguably the two toughest fixtures left. Liverpool still have to face Chelsea, Everton, and Tottenham – the other three sides ahead of them in the table – but all three matches will be at Anfield. And Liverpool are somehow just seven points behind fourth place, still a slightly unrealistic target I'd prefer to not mention given all that's come before, but still the obvious goal.
If Liverpool somehow win both, they'll be in spitting distance of the Champions League places. Win one or draw both, and it could still be a confidence boost that propels the club forward. Lose both, and the league campaign is basically over, a week after that mortifying exit from the FA Cup. That last proposition is a thought that should chill players, manager, and fans down to the bone.