FOX Soccer Exclusive
Contenders hope for cup springboard
The FA Cup dishes up another marquee match Sunday as Arsenal host Liverpool in a rematch of last weekend’s Premier League encounter (live, Sunday, FOX Sports 2, 10:30 a.m. ET). The wounded and “nervous” Gunners are trying to break out of a mini-slump that saw them spanked by the Reds last weekend at Anfield 5-1. Moreover, the pressure is building on Arsene Wenger and his club to take full advantage of the FA Cup, which many see as the team’s best chance to stock their trophy case after a nine-year barren spell.
Standing in their way are a high-flying Liverpool side which, on the back of two straight wins, have clambered back into the title conversation and now can take a significant step towards winning their first FA Cup since 2006. They certainly proved they can dismantle Arsenal last Saturday with a 20 minute barrage that saw them slot four past keeper Wojciech Szczesny, and the truth is they could have had far more.
Their vaunted “SAS” combo of Daniel Sturrudge and Luis Suarez is humming like a top, making Liverpool inarguably England’s most potent attacking force at this time. But behind them, Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling are also hitting all the right notes, with Coutinho’s visionary passing frequently the reason that Sturridge finds himself with space to shoot on frame. That was demonstrated to devastating effect on Liverpool’s fourth goal against Arsenal, when Coutinho’s brilliantly-judged pass took out Arsenal’s central defense, allowing Sturridge to take the ball in full gallop. He could hardly miss.
Arsenal are not in such fine form, with Mesut Ozil enduring a dip in form at just the wrong time and Olivier Giroud looking visibly tired. The loss of Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott to injury is proving exceptionally damaging. And of course there was the transfer deadline day comedy of seeing Arsenal sign a player, Kim Kallstrom, that promptly went onto the trainer’s table with a back injury.
Sunday’s loss also had serious psychological implications that the Gunners have yet to fully shake. Wenger took full blame for the result but was forced to concede the hangover persisted after Arsenal were held to a grim 0-0 draw against Manchester United on Wednesday night. “I felt we were nervous,” said Wenger. “We conceded five goals on Sunday, and we are only human beings.”
What is also worrying is how Arsenal were cat-called off the field Wednesday night. As the game wore on, the Emirates began to seethe. In years past, a 0-0 draw with United would be nothing to be ashamed of. This year, the sense that United were ripe for the taking put all the old worries and hurts back to the fore.
There is a real undercurrent of frustration among Arsenal’s fan base, with many waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop. Many suspect that the failure to sign a striker in the winter window will prove poisonous to their title ambitions -- indeed, Giroud missed several clean chances Wednesday -- and this is beginning to burst into open hostility.
This is peculiar considering that Arsenal are but a point off the top of the table, but understandable taken in context of the last nine years. There is a real sense that the club has prized fiscal prudence over success on the field in an era when big-spending teams are running away with all the hardware. That allowed, the fans’ impatience is also beginning to affect the players, and there has been more than one suggestion that some of the squad is using the dissatisfaction with the board and manager as something to hide their own performances behind. If that is the case, it is truly toxic.
As such, Wenger now has a very difficult decision now ahead of him. The Gunners host Bayern Munich on Wednesday in a critical UEFA Champions League tie, and while many think European glory is beyond the Londoners, Wenger is refusing to concede defeat. That means he has to freshen up his squad, but the larder is looking a bit bare.
Nacho Monreal is likely to make his return after his disastrous performance at Anfield to give Kieran Gibbs time to rest. Monreal could be joined by Lukasz Fabianski in the nets and Serge Gnabry in the outfield. Mathieu Flamini will be a welcome addition as his available again after serving a three-game suspension. Also in the mix is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who was a sparkplug late Wednesday against United. Lukas Podolski and the much-maligned Nicklas Bendtner may also be fielded to give Giroud the night off.
Brendan Rodgers has no such worries -- Liverpool are not in European play this season. He also gets a boost to his fragile defense with Daniel Agger ready to start this weekend; Glen Johnson and Mamadou Sakho remain questionable. If this means the error-prone Kolo Toure is able to be sat down, then Liverpool will benefit.
But it must be noted that Liverpool are far from perfect. As is the case with Arsenal, they are a man or two short and at times, their bench can look worryingly thin. Keeper Simon Mignolet has been brilliant this season in covering up some of their back line’s more egregious failings, but it’s worth noting that Fulham -- yes, Fulham -- were able to expose Liverpool’s lack of communication in the back. This is why Rodgers has Steven Gerrard now sitting right in front of that back four; he’s as there as much to provide cover as he is to direct plays, and it was illuminating that, even at 4-0 up against Arsenal, Rodgers was seen furiously directing his captain to hang back against a team that was well-beaten.
Regardless, this should be a fascinating Cup tie with far-reaching implications. One suspects that if Liverpool is able to win here, they can use it as a springboard to great things. One also suspects that if Arsenal are unable to hold serve, the wheels might fully come off.
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