After losing to Manchester United in their last fixture, Liverpool’s hopes of qualifying for next season’s Champions League hang by a thread.
Ahead of Saturday’s trip to the Emirates Stadium to face an in-form Arsenal side, Brendan Rodgers will know that realistically the Reds cannot afford to drop many more points and will have to send his side out to win the clash in North London.
Although stifling the creative talents of the hosts will play a major part in Liverpool’s chances, hitting Arsene Wenger’s men on the counter attack with the pace that the visitors have in their forward line will be a critical method of getting on the scoresheet.
With Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana unlikely to play, the emphasis may well be on Raheem Sterling to prove himself – especially after questionable comments over his Anfield future earlier in the week.
However, the key man for the Merseysiders will be Philippe Coutinho, whose battle against Gunners enforcer Francis Coquelin has the ability to dictate the game’s winner.
The brilliant Brazilian has proven over recent months that he has what it takes to be a match-winner in big games and getting the ball to the former Inter star will be a priority for Liverpool.
With Coutinho given a free role to try and find space between the hosts’ defence and midfield, he can be the creative force to break down an Arsenal rearguard that is not water-tight when put under prolonged pressure.
Coutinho has the range of passing to release the likes of Sterling and the Reds’ other attacking players, while he dictates the rhythm of the team’s passing game in the final third.
Wenger will be all too aware of the South American’s threat, and although he will try to nullify Liverpool by ensuring Arsenal have the bulk of the possession and territory, the French coach will know of the threat of a counter by the Reds.
As such, expect Coquelin to pay significant attention to Coutinho from the off, with the French battler deployed to break up the visitors’ play.
Since returning from a loan spell at Charlton, Coquelin has been in excellent form and looks like the player that Arsenal have been crying out for since the days of Patrick Vieira.
He has shown that he has the physical attributes and positional play to inhibit opposition number tens in the Premier League, with his tackling and interception statistics impressive this season so far.
Although it would be strange to see Coquelin man-mark Coutinho, his presence in front of the Gunners’ defence will be in the position that the Brazilian ideally will want to pick up the ball and drive at the hosts’ backline.
If Coutinho can find space and time he has the ability to decide the game in Liverpool’s favour, but Coquelin possesses the brawn and persistence to shackle the Reds star. Let battle commence.