Nose pushed firmly out of joint by the appearance of the FA Cup in the top flight calendar, the Premier League muscled back into view with a full programme of matches this week. Arsenal begin a mini-series of three games which will tell us a lot about their title chances this season.
Years ago, we travelled to Anfield more in hope than expectation. Even after 1989 and 1991 proved to be the breaking of the Liverpool’s empire, we were still more often than not, on the receiving end of defeat. It took a long time for that cycle to end and it’s really only since the turn of this century that coming away from that side of Stanley Park without three points is considered a poor result.
Such is football’s capricious nature that when we most expect to win, we fall to humbling defeat. Not by a close, single goal margin but capitulation. Or as with last season, a last-minute equaliser which stung as much as losing. It’s a horrible sensation to be on the receiving end of. As deep as the euphoria that greets the goal, is high; we are all too familiar with the two extremes.
Tonight’s match is no different. Arsenal are top of the Premier League, back to winning ways after the catastrophic performance at Southampton. Liverpool seem no more consistent under Jurgen Klopp than they were with Brendan Rodgers at the helm. No-one is quite sure what type of performance they will turn in.
Arsène is. It will be a “ferocious battle” at Anfield, he said earlier in the week and Arsenal have to be prepared for the. His expect for what Klopp is capable of is evident but it’s interesting that Liverpool’s injury list is growing quickly. It’s being put down to the German’s preferred style of play, a pressing game that it is claimed is too much for the squad although whether there is any truth in that, I don’t know.
It’s plausible, there’s no denying that Liverpool’s injuries appear more ‘wear and tear’ but are they any worse than other clubs have suffered? Right now, yes but in the perspective of a season, I am not so sure.
We can talk about injuries in the past tense at Arsenal. Well, almost. Alexis, according to Wenger, is “short” for this match but should be back for the trip to Stoke at the weekend.
In his absence, Joel Campbell has grown in confidence and his performances in the festive period were continually improving. Wenger thinks he benefited from a run in the side, in the same way that most players do. I wonder how Campbell views his future at the club though?
Arsène made it clear in talking to the media that whilst he liked the player and believed in his abilities, he was going to review the situation in January. Injuries gave the Costa Rican his chance and he’s taken it. But he should be under no illusions that others returning to fitness mean his time in the starting line-up is going to be limited.
When Alexis returns, it gives Wenger the option to play either Giroud or Walcott up front with Campbell on the right. When Cazorla comes back, Campbell drops to the bench; I just can’t see the Spaniard or Ramsey being left out; they are too pivotal for the side, to how Arsène wants the team to play, depending upon the opposition.
Where Campbell sits in the long-term with Oxlade-Chamberlain is unclear. At the moment he is ahead in the pecking order but that will change if the England international regains his form. Or should I say, when.
Except it’s never that clear-cut. Injuries intervene and he will get chances but having played for a while, will sporadic matches be enough for a player who was reportedly close to leaving last summer because he wanted regular first team football?
It may be that Arsenal refuse to play ball this summer with anyone who is seeking a move, beyond those who are out of contract or in the cases of Debuchy and Ospina, so evidently out of favour. We’ll give Arsène the benefit of the doubt on the Colombian’s injury but it does look like the situation with Almunia and others; conveniently injured until they depart.
Such cynicism in one so young.
I’d expect the line-up to be:
Cech; Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal; Flamini, Ramsey; Walcott, Özil, Campbell; Giroud
There’s a sense that Arsenal are getting back toward full strength. The bench will have a good blend of age and experience – ageing experience in some cases – and whilst we rely on the first XI, there’s a feeling, for me at least, that Wenger has options if the match isn’t going to plan. Arsène will look more to the likes of Gibbs, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Chambers first but the only real concern is the lack of alternatives for the forward line. Walcott can move to the lone striker role – Campbell at a push – but it disrupts the side in two places rather than just the one. Depth is there, it’s just in the medical room at the moment. If we can nurse the XI through for a couple of weeks longer, the position looks stronger.
I do think we ought to win tonight. Defeat won’t be damaging in isolation but as a precursor to the matches which follow, it won’t bode well. The season won’t be defined by events at Anfield but they could help shape its’ course. Arsène spoke earlier in the week about building momentum and I often think that this type of match – a ‘traditional’ big match – can boost the squad that little bit more than a routine win. If it is the beginning of a run that sees us take seven points from the next nine available, that will give the New Year a considerable boost.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.