For the detractors of Liverpool’s early season success, this is the match they have been waiting for. A matchup against one of the top teams in the Premier League. In all likelihood, their critics would prefer the game were being played against Chelsea or Manchester City. But those people will just have to accept that the Reds are traveling to London to face first place Arsenal on Saturday (1:30pm ET kick-off on NBC, for viewers in the United States).
After nine matches, Arsenal are top of the table with 22 points. The only league points the Gunners have dropped were during a 3-1 home defeat in the opening match of the year against Aston Villa and a 1-1 draw in the beginning of October away to West Brom.
Despite losing two recent matches at home, to Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League and Chelsea in the League Cup, Arsenal have won their last two Premier League matches by a combined score of 6-1. In the Premier League, the Gunners are still very much an ‘in form’ team. However, a question mark remains regarding the lack of strength among the opposition that the club has faced in the league with the only exception being their noisy neighbors Tottenham, who they defeated 1-0 earlier this season.
Liverpool, meanwhile, have done everything their supporters could have asked up to this point. Brendan Rodger’s men have navigated through their early fixture list with relative ease. They are sitting on 20 points after nine matches and are almost back at full strength.
Regarding their early season success, something Liverpool’s critics have overlooked is that the Reds have battled through their fixtures while missing key personnel. During the first five matches of the season, Liverpool were without the services of striker Luis Suarez due to the Uruguayan completing his 10-match ban that had carried over from last season. Over that period of time, the club had been playing with only one striker, Daniel Sturridge, and their offensive production was lacking. Through the first five matches of this season, Liverpool had only mustered five goals.
Since Suarez return, Liverpool have scored twelve times in four games, with Suarez scoring six goals.
Another key member of the Liverpool squad to have gone missing has been attacking midfielder Philippe Coutinho. The Brazilian playmaker was injured and substituted during the 55th minute at Swansea City with Liverpool holding a narrow 2-1 lead. Shortly after his removal, Michu equalized for the Swans and the match ended in a stalemate. Liverpool played their next match against Southampton without the midfielder (and the suspended Suarez) and proceeded to drop a disappointing 1-0 decision.
Some may argue that the loss to Southampton proves that Liverpool have just been the beneficiary of an easy fixture list. Every time they have lined up against a club in the top half, they’ve lost. But those who have seen Southampton (and have eyed the league table) should know that any club (regardless of their squad strength) will have a difficult time against Mauricio Pochettino’s men this year.
The news out of Liverpool this week is that Coutinho could be in line for a return against the Gunners. That would put the club’s attack back at 100 percent. But sometimes players returning from suspension or injury take time to reacquaint themselves with their teammates on the pitch. Liverpool did have the benefit of a League Cup match (albeit against Manchester United) to provide Suarez with an opportunity to get some match fitness and re-establish his on-the-field relationship with his teammates before they progressed into the league fixtures. If Coutinho does see time on Saturday, the Brazilian won’t have the same luxury afforded to Suarez. But last season Coutinho fit seamlessly into the North West club after his transfer from Internazionale. So chances are Liverpool will be more than pleased to have the midfielder’s name on their team sheet.
While Liverpool has regained strength in their squad, the Gunners are seeing more and more players visit the physio room.
Arsenal’s recent cup fixtures have not been kind. The club has had to play four matches over the span of ten days (Norwich City, Borussia Dortmund, Crystal Palace and Chelsea). The Gunners do not have a deep squad, so this period has proven to be very costly for the club. Fortunately their league matches have not been against teams in the top half. So Arsenal have been able to collect maximum points and remain top of the Premier League.
But over the coming days, the London club will face Liverpool, Borussia Dortmund, and Manchester United. Those matches will be played over a period of eight days and right now the Gunners are low on healthy bodies.
Theo Walcott is battling fitness, but could make a return to the lineup against Liverpool. Although he hasn’t been on the team sheet since Arsenal’s Champions League match with Marseille on September 18.
Prior to the Tuesday match versus Chelsea, Arsene Wenger ruled out Mathieu Flamini for two to three weeks. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain isn’t expected to return until December, while Yaya Sanogo and Lukas Podolski will more than likely just miss the Liverpool match.
If there was any good news for the club this week, it was Jack Wilshere’s return to the Gunners’ lineup against Chelsea. The 21-year-old midfielder was able to get a full ninety minutes in during the League Cup match, which should help his fitness leading into Saturday’s clash with Liverpool.
Arsenal are two points clear of Liverpool and Chelsea. This match represents an opportunity for the Gunners to end a two-match home losing streak and head into Wednesday’s Champions League match in Germany on a high.
Over the past three seasons, Arsenal has finished in the top four and qualified for Europe, while Liverpool has slipped out of the picture. But even during that difficult time, the Reds are unbeaten in London versus the Gunners. They beat Arsenal 2-0 in August 2012 and sandwiched that win around two draws in 2011 and 2013.
Unlike other London venues (Stamford Bridge, White Hart Lane, even Upton Park), the Emirates is not one of the stadiums opponents dread coming to. They know they will be facing a top club in Arsenal, but the 60,000 in attendance do not create a menacing atmosphere. Perhaps that is the reason Liverpool have done so well against Arsenal over the years at the Emirates. The Reds have taken points in six of the nine matches they have played in the stadium since it opened in 2006.
Another storyline entering this match will be Luis Suarez and Arsenal’s interest in signing the striker. The story has been well-documented, but this will be the first time the player will step foot in London after the transfer fiasco that took place between the two clubs a few months back.
Suarez has been nothing but professional on the pitch so far for Liverpool. That’s all his manager, teammates and supporters could have hoped for. But behind the scenes (according to various publications), the player still wants to leave the club. So there’s no doubt this angle will be played up by some of the media.
Regarding Suarez and the two failed bids from Arsenal, Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers had this to say:
“It was a difficult summer for him but it was for everyone. But we managed it as a club and he managed himself well and he has come out of the other side and he is performing as he does, to a very high level.”
“I knew once I got the commitment from him in the summer he wasn’t going to walk out,” said Rodgers. “He’s been great from then on.”
Regardless of that, if the two clubs’ league form continues as it has, on Saturday, fans will be in for a free-flowing, attacking contest. It should be one of the more memorable games of the early season.
After spending the past few seasons on the outside of the top four, Liverpool supporters will be in full voice while filling every seat of the Emirates’ away section. The players will step off their bus in London knowing they are within striking distance of the league leaders and ninety minutes away from silencing their critics.
Arsenal are looking to right their ship and maintain hold on the top spot in the league.
“It’s better to win,” Wenger said of his club’s recent form. “It’s difficult, but that’s part of the season. We know the games. We have to respond well against Liverpool. We are in a strong position in the league and have a good opportunity at home, and we have to turn this round. Away from home we are very solid, but at home you know it is important and vital to win the big games.”
For both clubs, this match represents a difficult test.