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Arsenal's tough month starts at Anfield
Arsenal begins a critical and trying month here Saturday with a lunchtime meeting against high-flying Liverpool. It is a game that the Gunners must win to keep some breathing space atop the table -- and a match that the Reds also desperately need a result from if they are to maintain their European ambitions.
The Gunners have one of the most trying months ahead of them in the league. In fact, this but the first of two games between the teams this month as Liverpool travel to London in just over a week’s time to face Arsenal in the fifth round of the FA Cup. Arsenal also host Manchester United midweek, and Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League the following week.
Yet history is on Arsenal’s side Saturday. Put aside for a second the fact that the Reds have one of the deadliest strike partnerships anywhere and consider instead that it has been six years since Liverpool have beat Arsenal at home, in any competition. In their last 13 league meetings, the Reds have but a single win, and while their offense is potent, when the two sides met earlier this season, Arsenal simply swept them aside with their possession and power.
The difference between then and now may come down to one man: Aaron Ramsey. So inspirational in their last meeting, he is sidelined for at least another five weeks with a thigh injury that has not responded to treatment. Arsenal have proven remarkably resilient in the face of such injuries this season -- witness Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s return to the side -- but with Mathieu Flamini and possibly Jack Wilshere also among the missing, this puts more pressure on Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla to carry the weight.
Also take note of the string of results Arsenal has racked up. Aside from a tough 2-2 draw in Southampton, the scorelines are almost boring in their regularity: 2-0, 2-0, 2-1, 2-0, 4-0, 2-0. This is a team that scores goals every game, hardly what you would expect from a side that is supposedly too reliant on a single striker. That man, of course, is Olivier Giroud, and he has been one of Arsenal’s best footballers all season long. He doesn’t always get on the board, but he always plays as the fulcrum of the attack, and had been tireless as well in getting back on defense. When he last faced Liverpool, he was one of the players of the game in that regard, putting in a solid shift that showed his all-round appeal.
Now, many observers, as my colleague Patrick Barclay notes, seem to feel that Arsenal will not be able to maintain their place atop the table. Arsenal historically grow in strength as the season winds down, but the club’s recently barren trophy case has many of their fans feeling limp about their prospects. I’m not so sure. While Arsenal are indeed too dependent on the continued health of Giroud, they are facing a series of teams with diminished expectations. Liverpool are not a title-challenger this season, as Brendan Rodgers admits. In days past, Manchester United would have been spoilers, but they look a team on the verge of a total nervous breakdown. And Chelsea and Manchester City? In it until the end for certain -- but both of those teams are flawed as well. So if not Arsenal, well, then, why not?
Numbers never lie: Luis Suarez and Olivier Girioud enter Saturday's match in top form (Image: WhoScored.com).
Saturday’s game may go some ways towards answering that question. Liverpool -- for the first time since Rafa Bentiez was at the helm -- are now routinely expected to win at home. They have won 10 of their 12 league matches and if they pull off three points Saturday would be on a pace not set since John Barnes led them to the title -- so long ago that Luiz Suarez was but a newborn.
Suarez has been instrumental to that form this year, with his fruitful partnership alongside Daniel Sturridge proving one of the most difficult to contain. In fact, the last time that Liverpool were held off the board was back in November at the Emirates -- since then, they have been on a tear, with the 'SAS' racking up 24 goals between them.
That attacking partnership can be disrupted -- when Arsenal shut them down, it was through the virtuoso work of Arteta in front of the back four. They simply denied both Suarez and Sturridge the service, reducing them to hunting for scraps on long balls. Lucas Leiva -- who will miss this game due to injury -- was reduced to the role of bystander; Steven Gerrard was again exposed as a step slow. And the absence of Glen Johnson, who will also miss Saturday’s match, was keenly felt down the flanks.
As has been the case all season long, the key for Liverpool in the early going will be Simon Mignolet. The keeper has been one of the brightest in the league, and his distribution out of the back, and poise under fire, are a major reason Liverpool remain in the European hunt. But he must marshal what has been a very shaky back four: both Kolo Toure and Martin Skrtel are capable of the crushing mistake, as Reds found out last week when Toure simply gifted West Brom an equalizer with a daft pass. If Mignolet is able to cover those weaknesses up, then Liverpool will have a chance at snatching points. If not, their long barren streak is likely to continue at Anfield against the Arsenal.
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