03 April 2015

Liverpool at Arsenal 04.04.15

7:45am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
2-2 (h) 12.21.14
1-2 Arsenal (a; FA Cup) 02.16.14
5-1 Liverpool (h) 02.08.14
0-2 Arsenal (a) 11.02.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 United (h); 1-0 Swansea (a); 0-0 Blackburn (h)
Arsenal: 2-1 Newcastle (a); 2-0 Monaco (a); 3-0 West Ham (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Sterling 6; Henderson 5; Coutinho, Lallana, Own Goal, Sturridge 4; Lambert, Markovic, Moreno 2; Balotelli, Borini, Can, Johnson, Skrtel 1
Arsenal: Giroud, Sanchez 13; Cazorla 7; Ramsey, Welbeck 4; Koscielny, Özil 3; Rosicky, Walcott 2; Bellerin, Chambers, Flamini, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wilshere 1

Referee: Anthony Taylor

Guess at a line-up:
Can Toure Sakho
Markovic Henderson Allen Moreno
Sterling Sturridge

It may just be me, but that international break seemed even longer than usual. At least there aren't any more for the rest of the season, small consolation that may be. It's just the league now (and, FA Cup, I guess). Eight games to save the campaign.

There are seven undoubted Liverpool starters tomorrow: Mignolet, Can, Sakho, Moreno, Henderson, Sterling, and Coutinho.

Skrtel will miss the next three matches through suspension, likely replaced by Toure, but Lovren's a possibility as well.

Two more openings are because of injuries to Sturridge and Lallana. Both are questionable, with Sturridge back in training despite worries he'd be out for a month, and Lallana supposedly to return to training today. If I had to guess – and I guess I have to – I suspect Sturridge is the likelier starter, while Lallana will be used as a sub, at best. But there's a very viable concern that Sturridge should be protected, should be left out, due to his non-stop injury issues this season. If it gets worse, Liverpool will lose him for longer, again. But with tomorrow's match at Arsenal vital if Liverpool have any hope of fourth, risks will probably be taken.

Even less certain is who'll play at right wing-back, where we've seen Markovic, Manquillo, Ibe, Sterling, Henderson, Johnson, Can, and Lallana since the switch to 3-4-2-1. Almost all of them are available, and none of them have made the position their own, all with both benefits and flaws.

Sterling? Welp. Most of the discussion about Sterling this week is a can of worms I'd rather seal, burn, and bury than open, but there has been one truth: playing him at wing-back is a waste of his talents. Is he Liverpool's best option there? Maybe. Is he vastly, vastly better – both individually and for the team in general – in a more attacking position? Absolutely.

Otherwise? Markovic? Maybe too attacking, not in great form. Manquillo or Flanagan? Maybe too defensive, with the latter yet to feature this season. Ibe? Too injured. Lallana? Probably too injured, and not especially good there anyway. Johnson? Too Glen Johnson. So, um, Markovic, I guess? Maybe Manquillo. I dunno. Liverpool might want a more defensive option, even if Manquillo hasn't started a league match since December 29. But don't play Sterling there. Play Sterling in attack, whether as a partner for Sturridge, in place of Sturridge, or slightly deeper as an attacking midfielder. But not at wing-back.

Finally, there's a tiny chance that Lucas replaces Allen, but I doubt it. But Henderson's another in the long line that have played wing-back since the switch, so maybe he goes back to the right with Lucas and Allen in the middle.

It is worth noting that Liverpool played well against Arsenal in December, arguably unlucky to come away with just a draw, with an XI of Jones; Toure, Skrtel, Sakho; Henderson, Lucas, Gerrard, Markovic; Coutinho, Lallana; Sterling. Henderson at wingback, Sterling up front, a good performance and a reasonable (if slightly disappointing) result. So there is precedent.

Meanwhile, Arsenal. A side in even better form than Liverpool. Not only are Arsenal winning, but they're winning the close games; five of Arsenal's last 10 matches have ended 2-1, with Arsenal doing just enough to hold onto the victory. Giroud has nine goals in those ten games, his best stretch since joining the club.

Arsenal's last draw came at Liverpool, way back on December 21. Since then? 16 wins, and three losses in all competitions – the losses at Southampton on New Year's Day, at Tottenham on February 7, and against Monaco in the Champions League on February 25. That's it. A 2.54 points-per-game average in the league since that draw at Liverpool. They've all but locked up a Champions League spot for next season and should be odds-on to pass City for second given their respective form.

Arsenal have lost just two league games at home since the beginning of last season: Aston Villa in the first match of 2013-14, and Manchester United in November. But they've still struggled against other top four contenders, as noted by Michael Cox at ESPN: draws against Chelsea, United, and City last season; draws against City and Tottenham this season, as well as that loss to United.

And Brendan Rodgers has never won at Arsenal. 0-2 last season, 2-2 in 2012-13, and 0-1 while with Swansea in 2011-12. Precedent is not on Liverpool's side tomorrow.

Unusually for Arsenal, they've few injury concerns: Welbeck will be a late fitness test after picking up a knock on international duty, while Oxlade-Chamberlain's probably out for another week or so. The XI against Newcastle was Ospina; Chambers, Gabriel, Koscielny, Monreal; Coquelin, Ramsey; Sanchez, Cazorla, Welbeck; Giroud, and that's a good bet for tomorrow's XI. As with Liverpool, most of those players have cemented their place over the last few months. Maybe Cazorla drops into midfield, with Özil as the #10, or maybe Welbeck isn't fit, with Özil used in that position. Maybe Mertesacker reclaims his place ahead of Gabriel. Gibbs and Bellerin are alternatives at full-back. But there won't be many changes. There shouldn't be many changes considering how well they've done lately.

It ain't over 'til it's over, but in some ways, tomorrow is Liverpool's last stand. A loss will put Liverpool nine points behind Arsenal, and City (seven points ahead, and at Palace) and United (five points ahead, and facing Villa) are likely to take three points as well. Liverpool, having just ended a 13-match unbeaten streak in the league, will need to finish the final eight games of the campaign with a similar run to have a shot at qualifying for the Champions League next season. And it starts tomorrow.

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