The final matchday before Christmas arrives as Arsenal travel to Anfield for a chance to put themselves in contention for a return to the top four as 2015 beckons. Liverpool need the points to lift themselves into the top half and the goals that turn their goal difference positive.
That opening paragraph underlines the depth to which both clubs have underachieved this season. Liverpool’s is perhaps less of a surprise given their summer but Arsenal? Most of us hoped – expected – better than to be sitting sixth behind West Ham and Southampton.
Thank God Fat Sam’s boys are playing better than normal; chasing West Ham in the table normally means you are involved in a relegation battle.
Predicting the outcome this afternoon is a tricky proposition. Despite only conceding two goals in their last two games, Arsenal’s defensive frailties remain, lurking in the darkest recesses waiting to be exposed as they were at Stoke last month. Arsène was quick to point out the attack was far from misfiring from the interval and has continued to work well since.
Liverpool by contrast are struggling for goals. They didn’t replace Suarez effectively and Brendan Rodgers freely admits Daniel Sturridge’s injury has hit the squad hard, scoring just seven in their eight home games so far this season.
Maybe it isn’t that hard to predict after all; 0-0.
Given how horribly the afternoon turned out the last time the two sides met at Anfield, that would represent some improvement but there would definitely be a sense of disappointment. Liverpool are misfiring and victory today is not beyond Arsenal at all but then again I thought the same about the recent visit of Manchester United to The Emirates; it didn’t end well, did it?
Reports this morning suggest that both Ox and Theo Walcott have passed fitness tests and will travel to Anfield. Make do and mend? It’s not a bad solution to have but could be better. It’s hard to see anything other fifteen or so minutes for the latter but the former means the only change to the side which comprehensively beat Newcastle will be the return of Calum Chambers for Hector Bellerin.
Some suggest that it might be a straight swap rather than Debuchy dropping into the right back slot. I can’t see that personally and we have to move away from ‘square pegs into round holes’ solutions when players are fit. Chambers is raw but represents less of a risk than an experienced full back being played out of position.
Wenger spoke at his press conference about his plans this winter; if the right deal for the right price can be found, he will buy. If not, we go through the second half of the season with the same weaknesses in the squad, praying that the injury gods have finished with their hilarity for five months. Frankly, it’s not much of a plan.
Which is why I don’t think Arsène will run with it. Previous talk had been about completing deals this month, ready to be announced early next month and I hope that is still the case. Laurent Koscielny is at least a fortnight away from playing which takes us to the final Premier League game before the FA Cup Third Round tie at home to Hull City.
Despite needing reinforcements in midfield and for me, a specialist defensive midfielder, it would be of little surprise if a fourth centre back is the only signing. Where that player sits in the scheme is hard to determine with injuries but it would free Chambers to develop into a central midfielder.
The talk of that happening is reminiscent of Thomas Vermaelen. Many felt he could fulfil that role but Arsène disagreed. Whether it was something he tried in training and saw it didn’t work is unknown. Perhaps it was nothing more than the manager not having faith or confidence in the Belgian’s ability to fulfil the role.
This afternoon’s line-up picks itself, mainly because there are few alternatives. Podolski for Welbeck? It won’t be Campbell, that’s for sure but beyond that, options are severely limited. Perhaps Monreal for Gibbs? It’s nothing more than tinkering around the edges with the core players in the XI facing little competition thanks to injury.
It’s important to take three points this afternoon. The fixtures this week for others around Arsenal are tough with United meeting Tottenham, Southampton Chelsea and West Ham face both Chelsea and Arsenal. The top four is a realistic target by the time we face Southampton in 2015.
Wenger touched on this,
I think we are getting better but that’s what’s at stake. We have to show that in the final part of the season because we go now in the Premier League where we need to win the games. After we have the FA Cup and the Champions League and without defensive solidity we have no future.
Capitalising on the failings of others has been the ruthless touch we have not seen on a consistent basis this season. There are hints of it at the moment but we’ve been here before. At some point, a run has to be put together to climb the table and stay there.
FROM THE VAULTS
Today’s dip into the archives comes from November 1952. Arsenal arrived at Anfield in seventh place following an inconsistent start. Including the previous week’s victory over Middlesbrough at Highbury, Arsenal only lost 5 of the remaining 26 games to the end of the season and ended as champions.
Enjoy today’s match wherever you are watching it.