English football is really spoiling us at the moment, with a predictably exciting batch of midweek Premier League fixtures just days after all of the giant-killing action in the FA Cup’s third round.
Indeed, Swansea City take on Sunderland in a hotly-anticipated relegation clash, Everton will look to repeat their Capital One Cup heroics against Manchester City, albeit this time at the Etihad Stadium, and Spurs and Leicester will meet again for the second time in just four days.
But the pick of the bunch has to be Arsenal’s visit to Liverpool – a fixture involving two sides who love to play attacking football but are never too far away from self-implosion. In the last six meetings between the two clubs, there have been twenty goals, two red cards and just one scoreless draw.
The table-topping Gunners are twelve points above the Reds in the Premier League table, but Jurgen Klopp’s side will boast the home advantage during Wednesday night’s 8pm kickoff. So who’ll come out on top in this one? Perhaps a look at FIVE key individual battles can shed some light on the potential result.
Jurgen Klopp has often preferred Brazilian attacker Roberto Firmino to the more conventional styles of Christian Benteke in Liverpool’s lone striker role since taking Anfield’s managerial reigns in October.
But with the Reds’ attacking options seriously depleted and the Belgium international now the Mersey outfit’s top scorer in the Premier League after finding his sixth goal of the season against Sunderland in late December, it would be quite a bold move to leave Benteke on the bench for Arsenal’s visit on Wednesday night.
That being said, the 25-year-old will be up against arguably the toughest centre-back pairing in the Premier League in Gunners duo Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, who have helped the north London outfit concede the third-fewest goals of any side in the division this season and now have the experience of three-and-a-half campaigns together at the heart of Arsenal’s defence.
Mertesacker offers exceptional positioning and dominance in the air, whilst Koscielny provides covering pace and an astute reading of the game on the deck. In a nutshell, they’re pretty hard to get past – and to make matters worse, goalkeeper Petr Cech is enjoying top form at the moment.
The definition of unsung, Lucas Leiva has performed an integral role for Liverpool over the last few seasons as the only out-and-out holding midfielder in their squad. Even the physically imposing Emre Can likes to venture forward – but the tough-tackling Brazilian is more than happy marshalling the pocket just in front of the back four.
He’s certainly impressed this season, averaging the most tackles per match of any Premier League player at a whopping 4.8. But keeping a leash on Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil, in contrast, the most potent creator in the Premier League this term, will require much more than simply ball-winning aggression.
Indeed, the German international is finally providing the level of output you’d expect from a club-record £42.5million signing, racking up an incredible three goals and 16 assists in 19 league appearances this season whilst averaging a division-highest 4.4 created chances per match.
The 27-year-old’s performance levels have reached the realms of unplayable over the last few months, so Lucas Leiva will certainly require the assistance of those joining him in Liverpool’s engine room to keep Ozil quiet.
Whilst the defenders seemed to have the upper hand in the aformentioned battle between Christian Benteke and Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, the shoe feels like it’s on the other foot for this one.
Olivier Giroud has been in fantastic form over the last few months, bagging seven goals and two assists in his last eight appearances across all competitions, and appears to be flourishing with the aforementioned Mesut Ozil supplying him on a weekly basis. Then again, who wouldn’t.
Liverpool’s injury crisis, on the other hand, will force Jurgen Klopp into fielding pretty much whoever’s fit on Wednesday night and at the moment it’s looking like Kolo Toure and Mamadou Sakho.
But the latter is a doubt and probably won’t be fully fit whilst despite his vast experience, lifting Premier League titles with the Gunners and fellow former employers Manchester City, Toure is still a bit of a weak link at the age of 34.
Giroud possesses the height and power to handle both, so someone like 6 foot 2 midfielder Emre Can might be required to screen in front of the France international for added protection.
Both will be more concerned with stopping the winger placed directly in front of them but the battle between Alberto Moreno and Hector Bellerin hinges on which full-back balances their attacking and defensive duties better.
Jurgen Klopp loves his full-backs to push forward whilst Bellerin has emerged as one of the most exciting offensive No.2s in Europe since breaking into the Arsenal starting Xi last term, combining blistering pace with consistent chance creation in the final third.
Once again, Moreno will be more preoccupied with Arsenal’s right winger – likely either Theo Walcott or Joel Campbell – whilst whoever is fielded on the left for Liverpool should give Bellerin plenty to think about as well.
But both will need to keep an eye out for overlapping runs, whilst making sure they don’t get caught too high up the pitch and allow the opposition to double-up down the flank. That partly comes down to team-work with those in front of them, but also their ability to read the game – knowing when to push forward and when to hold back.
With neither older than 23, we could see both naively venturing forward more often than not. It should make for a more exciting game, but could prove costly for their respective sides.
It remains to be seen if Jordan Henderson will be deemed fit enough to start at Anfield following his recent hamstring injury but the Liverpool skipper seems like the ideal candidate to curtail the offensive threat of Arsenal counterpart Aaron Ramsey.
The Welshman perhaps serves best in more attacking capacities but he’s performed well as a box-to-box over the last few weeks, in the absence of Jack Wilshere, Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla, notching up three goals and two assists since the start of December.
Henderson isn’t exactly a like-for-like but his energy could be crucial to stopping Ramsey run riot in the middle of the park. The Arsenal star likes to get up and down as well but the England international is indisputably one of the most industrious dynamos in the Premier League, offering as much going forward as he does defensively.
Think of it as a war of attrition with a splash of technical flair. Both midfielders can score and create chances and both cover a sensational amount of ground over the course of ninety minutes. With that in mind, it’s likely we’ll see them going toe-to-toe and making runs of the back of each other for the vast majority of the game.
If there’s one concern from Liverpool’s perspective, however, it’s that Henderson’s not exactly match fit, having made just six Premier League starts so far this season. Ramsey, on the other hand, has been starting regularly for Arsenal since late November.