02 March 2012

Liverpool v Arsenal 03.03.12

7:45am ET, live in the US on espn2

Last four head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (a) 08.20.11
1-1 (a) 03.20.11
1-1 (h) 09.25.10
0-1 Arsenal (a) 03.28.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Cardiff aet (n) [3-2 on pens]; 6-1 Brighton (h); 1-2 United (a)
Arsenal: 5-2 Spurs (h); 0-2 Sunderland (a); 0-4 Milan (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Bellamy, Suarez 6; Carroll 3; Adam, Gerrard, Maxi, Skrtel 2; Henderson, Johnson, Kuyt 1
Arsenal: van Persie 23; Walcott 5; Arteta, Gervinho 4; Vermaelen 3; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey 2; Andre Santos, Benayoun, Chamakh, Koscielny, Rosicky, Sagna, Song 1

Referee: Mark Halsey

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Carragher Skrtel Enrique
Gerrard Spearing Adam
Suarez Carroll Downing

A potential Carling Cup hangover, with the added bonus of a wholly unnecessary midweek internationals. Going into an utterly crucial contest that will go a long way in deciding who finishes fourth. Fantastic.

The above would be as much 4-1-4-1 as 4-3-3, with Spearing replacing Henderson, using elements of formation deployed against Brighton rather than the more-orthodox 4-4-2 in the Carling Cup final. Most importantly, playing three central midfielders against an Arsenal team that often dominates possession rather than a midfield duo.

Of course, all this is contingent upon Gerrard being available after picking up a knock 30 minutes into a meaningless England friendly which, of course, England lost. Thanks Pearce, thanks FA. If Gerrard's out, it seems like Henderson would replace the captain in almost a straight swap. He's been at his best in an advanced role through the middle, which would probably render the formation more a 4-2-3-1 with Henderson ahead of Spearing and Adam. Spearing and Adam would help mark van Persie and whoever plays behind van Persie when Arsenal are in possession, while Henderson would close down Arteta's deep-lying creativity.

Carroll surprisingly started in the reverse fixture, the second match of the campaign, without Suarez and with Liverpool in a reasonably-defensive 4-2-3-1 at the Emirates. I expect both Suarez and Carroll to start regardless of the formation unless fitness demands otherwise, as they have in the last two matches. Once again, it's tempting to substitute Bellamy for Downing in this formation, but the winger has shown improvement over the last few matches, culminating in him man-of-the-match performance on Sunday, while Bellamy remains a dangerous weapon off the bench. In addition, Bellamy played 75 minutes in Wales' Wednesday friendly, and his ability to play two games in so short a spell remains in doubt. Kuyt could also come in, on the right with Suarez moving to the opposite flank, a big game player for yet another big game. But as in the Carling Cup final, Dalglish has shown a proclivity for playing 'his players,' those signed in the last year, in the most-important fixtures.

Agger's injury pretty much demands Carragher as his replacement, with Skrtel moving over to play on the left of central defense. Both are worrying facets. Skrtel's looked far better paired with Agger and playing on his more-comfortable side, while Carragher against van Persie always frightens. With Agger out for at least a month, I expect Coates will get chances. But a match against Arsenal – whatever form they're in – that will be fairly crucial for deciding fourth is probably not the place for that chance.

Arsenal had a horrific week prior to their North London demolition derby, ostensibly knocked out of two competitions after losing 0-4 in Milan followed by an 0-2 loss in the FA Cup at Sunderland. The 5-2 mauling of Spurs, after initially going 0-2 down, was more than a proper response. But 7-1 against an insipid Blackburn earlier in February demonstrated their potential for ruthlessness, as did a 5-3 victory at Stamford Bridge in October. Only City and United have scored more league goals than the Gunners.

Van Persie has 23 of Arsenal's 53 league goals – 43%. Liverpool's joint-top scorers, Bellamy and Suarez, each account for just under 21% of the club's league goals. Of course, Bellamy and Suarez have only scored six each. And Liverpool has only scored 29 in total. Arsenal have scored 29 solely at the Emirates.

Last time these two teams met, Arsenal were riven with injuries. It's gotten better in the intervening months, but not massively better. Andre Santos, Frimpong, Mertesacker, Coquelin and Wilshere are still long-term casualities. Ramsey recently incurred an ankle injury which rules him out. Rosicky picked up a back injury which makes him a late fitness test. And most importantly, Vermaelen and van Persie suffered knocks during those unnecessary midweek internationals, but both will probably be available. If Vermalen and van Persie are fit enough to play, Arsenal's XI will look something like Szczesny; Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs; Arteta, Song; Walcott, Benayoun, Gervinho; van Persie.

As said over and over, as necessary and lovely it was to see Liverpool's trophy hex broken, the Carling Cup victory was just as important as a platform for the future. Success breeds success and so forth. Seven points behind Arsenal (and Chelsea) with a game in hand, it's hard to see Liverpool pushing on to fourth if they lose tomorrow. 10 points in 12 games begins to push the bounds of mathematical credibility. But Liverpool has an all-too-familiar tendency to stretch credibility to its breaking point.

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