50-50 Challenge: Liverpool vs. Arsenal
Liverpool humiliated Arsenal 5-1 at Anfield last season but this time around, the landscape is different. The hosts have struggled following Luis Suarez's departure to Barcelona while Daniel Sturridge's continued absence has contributed to Liverpool's worst-ever start to a Premier League season.
Arsenal have troubles of their own and both Brendan Rodgers and Arsene Wenger have come under criticism this season. It promises to be an entertaining clash at Anfield with both defences rather suspect -- here's David Usher (Liverpool) and John Cross (Arsenal) ahead of the big one this Sunday.
How important is this match in the context of your season?
David Usher: Liverpool want to finish in the top four this season and Arsenal are one of the teams standing in the way of that, so this is a vitally important game for both sides. There's more pressure on the Reds to win as they are at home and need the points more desperately, having already fallen behind the likes of Arsenal, Spurs and Manchester United. With both sides having recently been beaten by United, another defeat here would be damaging in terms of both league standing and also morale.
John Cross: In the context of reaching the top four, it's vital Arsenal get something from the game because it's so tight in the battle for Champions League places. But far more than that, Arsenal's season fell apart when they were humiliated at times last season. This is the chance to actually show that they have learnt some lessons from their painful beatings at Liverpool, Everton, Manchester City and Chelsea. So, I think it's vital that Arsenal get something and put in a performance which proves a point.
Rodgers and Wenger are both under pressure. Should they stay or go come May?
DU: It's impossible to give a definitive answer on either until the season runs its course. Rodgers could definitely survive missing out on the top four as long as performances improve in the second half of the season and some of the signings begin to come good. He's the owners' guy and they are not going to give up on him lightly, especially having just given him a contract extension and sanctioned well over a hundred million pounds worth of transfers. He still retains support in the stands too but that support won't be indefinite and improvement needs to come soon.
Results and performances have been poor so it's only natural that he is under pressure and scrutiny despite being named Manager of the Year only a few months ago. Football has become a "what have you done for me lately?" business and with just one good season under his belt so far, Rodgers doesn't have as much credit in the bank as Wenger has at Arsenal.
The Frenchman looks to be in some trouble himself, but he's been here several times before and usually finds a way to finish in the top four and save himself. The abuse he suffered from some fans at the train station following the Stoke loss was horrible to see, though. Regardless of what happens this season Wenger deserves better than that, given all he's done for Arsenal.
JC: Wenger should stay and will stay, no question about that. There's also no question in Wenger's mind that he's there until the end of his contract in 2017. Arsenal have been disappointing this season in terms of the title race and maybe Wenger should have ridden off into the sunset last summer after winning the FA Cup.
But Arsenal will feel they can still reach top four. Fans still find it hard to break with Wenger and even the banner which calls for him to go is respectful for what he's achieved in the past. But Arsenal must win trophies in the final era of Wenger's reign. He has had years of this debate and he seems to wear it well. Similarly for Rodgers, it's difficult times but Liverpool must stick with him. He had a great season last year and they need to show patience and support.
Which players, if any, would you take from the opposition?
DU: There are several but I really, really wish Liverpool had Alexis Sanchez. They should have thrown the kitchen sink at him in the summer to persuade him to make the switch to Merseyside because he was the one player out there capable of doing a passable impersonation of the departing Suarez. They didn't do enough to convince him and he ended up at Arsenal.
John W. Henry fought tooth and nail to keep Suarez out of the clutches of Arsenal but was not prepared to fight as hard to do the same with Sanchez. I'd imagine there are some at Anfield who regret that now, as the Chilean has taken to English football like a duck to water and is everything that Liverpool have been lacking.
I'd happily take Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott, Wojciech Szczesny and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain too.
JC: Martin Skrtel, Steven Gerrard and Raheem Sterling. Let's be honest here, Liverpool's defence hasn't been great this season and yet Skrtel still looks a strong, powerful and rugged force. Arsenal are crying out for a better defensive axis and he'd get in. I'm a major Gerrard fan, too. He still has great influence on and off the pitch, can sit deep, can get forward and despite his advancing years, I'd find a place for him in most Premier League teams.
Sterling is the most exciting of English players. His ability to run with the ball at speed is unrivalled in the Premier League. He's fabulous to watch and would definitely be in the Arsenal team. There's a few others that you can make a case for, but those three are definites.
How will the game compare to the 5-1 last season?
DU: It won't. I'm not sure we'll ever see Liverpool produce an opening 20 minutes like that ever again, certainly not against a top side. They'd never produced anything as stunning as that before despite their illustrious history, so the likelihood of it happening again is remote. Arsenal walked into a buzzsaw last season but they weren't the only ones. Liverpool blew a lot of teams away early in games last season but the Arsenal performance was the most emphatic.
Perhaps if Arsenal were facing Suarez and Sturridge this Sunday they'd go into the game with some serious trepidation after what happened last season, but that's not the case and Arsenal will feel they have little to be concerned with providing they keep Sterling in check.
JC: I think it'll be tighter! Arsenal were awful that day -- it was shocking and embarrassing. It could have been even heavier, too. That was the day which brought Arsenal's title ambitions crashing back down to earth. Arsenal defended appallingly, they looked disinterested and shellshocked. If they can't produce a reaction and regain some pride, then Wenger will be hugely disappointed. Liverpool were on fire and were sweeping opponents aside, particularly with their fast starts. That's what I'm sure Arsenal will be on the lookout for.
Name a crucial battle
DU: Raheem Sterling vs. Per Mertesacker
When I look around the field I don't see too many areas in which Liverpool have much of an edge, so this battle is going to be key if the Reds are to win this game. Last season Rodgers used Sterling on the left with instructions to run into the space left by the Arsenal right back, as that would isolate him with the ponderous German. It worked to perfection as Sterling scored twice and generally had his way with the Arsenal defence all night. With Suarez and Sturridge no longer there, Sterling carries most of the attacking burden for Liverpool and he therefore needs to win his battle with Mertesacker and whoever partners him in the centre.
JC: Alexis Sanchez vs. Alberto Moreno
Sanchez is the player that Liverpool and Rodgers wanted to replace Suarez and you can see why. Sanchez scores goals and creates chances, but it's the other side of his game that would have made him the perfect replacement. Sanchez works hard, never stops running and never gives defenders a moment's peace. He's also adaptable as he can play across the front and rather like Suarez, helps the team be more fluid and versatile. If Wenger can see a weakness in Moreno then I have no doubt that he would put him down the right of attack. Moreno is better at getting forward and maybe Sanchez can really put him on the back foot.
DU: 2-1 to Liverpool. It really could go either way but Liverpool have not had much go their way this season and are due a change of fortune, starting on Sunday.
JC: I agree with Dave -- Liverpool to win 2-1. Arsenal still look vulnerable defensively, Liverpool will need to get their form going and this would be the perfect opportunity.