I’m more nervous about this Arsenal match than any other time I’ve awaited Liverpool taking on the Gunners. Well: outside of a European quarterfinal, anyway. It’s the context of this season that has me all wound up. The injuries. The results. The fall from the Champions League. With Liverpool following their best season in nearly two decades and with the series of heartbreaks that defines the current campaign, this match has become bigger than ever.
It’s not just that Liverpool need the win for the points and the sake of the players’ self-confidence. It’s not just that we are waiting to see if those who’ve struggled with injury are truly fit – especially Mssrs Gerrard, Benayoun, Aquilani, Riera and (capital E) Especially one Fernando Torres. The biggest thing for me is this: even when we are in a rut, our players usually play out of their skin against the biggest opposition. Even with big injuries we’ve upset giants (Chelsea and Manchester United last fall) and even after a miserable patch we have a knack for pulling together for a clutch match (notably: the win over Inter after losing to Barnsley in 2008). For me, tomorrow’s match is a thermometer for the season. The reading will tell us if Liverpool can recover from this fall’s many wounds.
But after the miserable results against Lyon and Fiorentina in the group stage, I just don’t know if we’ve got it in our tanks this year. Against Arsenal we should see players like Lucas and Insua transcend their youth and inexperience and make top class stops and services as needed. Against Arsenal we should see Stevie G and El Nino make searing runs and passes and shots while inspiring every other red-shirted player to elevate his game and play better football than they knew they had in them. Against Arsenal we should see our struggling defense call up the essential chemistry to the point it looks like a four-way telepathic rapport is streaming through our back line.
We should see all this. But we won’t know until the day if all the clutter amassing from the losses and draws and countless injuries can be swept from our players’ heads in this potentially cathartic outing. This feels like the kind of match that can turn Liverpool’s results around. This feels like the time to switch on and put the rut behind us.
Though I’m plenty devastated this season, I’m not entirely surprised at our struggles. When we sent Robbie Keane on his way last winter without picking up another striker, I knew we had just taken a big gamble. If Torres and Gerrard both stay fit: Liverpool are fine. If not: who takes on the striking duties with regular conviction? And at that point I did not anticipate the loss of Xabi Alonso.
Alonso and Torres were essential last season not just in what they could do on the ball, but in the opposition players they sucked up when off the ball. Opponents swarmed to these two, scared of what they could do given too much space, and this gave the rest of our side much more space to work with. We don’t get the same treatment with Lucas and N’Gog. (Though N’Gog may some day earn it.) We’ve been crippled by Xabi being gone and Torres being in absentia.
But against Arsenal, if we see Torres back in good form (or at least up for it: remember his goal against United? He was playing through pain then) and if Lucas does his usual trick of transforming into a quality first team player for the big occasions, we should put up a serious fight against the Londoners.
Of course this all might be what I need to tell myself to get through the rest of the time between now and 11am EST. Sometimes I need the pep talk as much as our starting XI. And I have to give it to myself since Rafa doesn’t include me in his pre-match talk. But no matter how I try to convince myself, I will still be filled with uncertainty and angst.
And so I will struggle to sleep tonight. The kid awaiting Christmas morning yet again. I pray I get to unwrap three points and maybe a brace from Torres just to be safe.