Arsenal have a season defining four days ahead of them starting with a home game against Liverpool on Sunday, and followed by a short trip to The Spuds on Wednesday night. They simply have to win both of those games if they are to have any chance of winning the Premier League title. Both of their opponents are in dire need of points too, as they look to qualify for different levels of European football next season.
First up is the game with Liverpool, and for one of the supposed "big teams" in the Premier League they have a dreadful away record. They have won four, drawn two, and lost 10 away games so far this season, and they have only managed to score 16 goals in those games, but they have conceded 26. It's their away form which had them briefly in relegation trouble earlier in the season, but it has improved recently with three wins in their last five away games.It would seem Kenny Dalglish has had a positive effect on their away form, and he will be hoping for another three points against Arsenal.
For a change Arsenal have had some positive injury news, as Johan Djourou, Wojciech Szczesny, and Alex Song are all available to play. There are doubts about the availability of Bacary Sagna, Tomas Rosicky, and Aaron Ramsey, and even Thomas Vermaelen is back in full training. According to Arsene Wenger, only Lukasz Fabianski is unavailable to train, and I can't remember Arsenal have so many players to choose from in a very long time.
The boss also said that Manuel Almunia is back in training, but he might not be risked after he hurt his knee in the warm up before the Blackpool game last Sunday. I was delighted to see Jens Lehmann take his place in that game, and if Almunia had played the result could have been different in my opinion. I can only hope the boss realises what a liability Almunia is, and decides to put Lehmann on the bench instead. His influence in the dressing room can only be a benefit to the team, and that's something which has to be considered too.
The starting 11 nearly picks itself in my opinion, but the boss will have a few tough calls to make. I fully expect Szczesny, Djourou, and Sagna to return to the defence, as long as they are all fit to play. Lehmann knows he will have to stand aside if Szczesny is fit, and Sebastien Squillaci will probably know he will have to do the same for Djourou. Emmanuel Eboue scored a goal last week from his right back position, but I will be much happier to see Sagna in the team, as he is a much better defender in my opinion.
The rest of the defence should be made up by Gael Clichy and Laurent Koscielny, and it's a defence which plays very well as a unit in my opinion. Despite having a reputation of being very shaky, Arsenal's defensive record is now only bettered by Chelsea this season. If Arsenal can keep those five players fit for the rest of the season, they won't concede too many goals, and their title challenge will then be decided by how often their attacking players can manage to shine.
In midfield both Cesc Fabregas and Jack Wilshere are certain to start, and the boss must decide who to play in the defensive role beside Wilshere. Abu Diaby played very well last week, and he will feel hard done by if he doesn't play, but I suspect Song will get the nod. Diaby is very inconsistent, and he rarely plays two good games in a row. I think it would be a risk to play him from the start against Liverpool, but if he does play it will be because of last week's excellent display by him.
The attacking trio will be led by Robin Van Persie, and Samir Nasri is sure to be in one of the wide roles. The other wide role will be a straight call between Theo Walcott and Andrey Arshavin, and I think Walcott is the most likely to play. Liverpool have plenty of defensive injuries, and I think Walcott could be the man to benefit from those injuries. His pace can be a real threat, and if Cesc can pick out passes like he did last week, I think Walcott can take advantage of them.
It's a very strong Arsenal team on paper, but the players need to show that strength where it matters, on the pitch. When Blackpool came back into the game last week Arsenal were found wanting, and they need to be able to get over setbacks like that. They were still winning against Blackpool after they conceded the goal, but it took at least 15 minutes for Arsenal to start playing well again. If they do that against Liverpool, they will pay a much higher price, and it's up to each and every player to ensure it doesn't happen.
When Arsenal were on top against Blackpool, Cesc looked fantastic, and he played RVP and Nasri in on at least five or six occasions. It's not his fault that they missed those chances, and they will have to be more clinical against Liverpool. Unfortunately when Blackpool had the upper hand I thought Cesc was nowhere to be seen, and he needs to assert himself when things are going badly, as well as when they are going well. I have said time and again that he creates goalscoring opportunities more often than any other player in the top five leagues in Europe, but Arsenal's conversion rate of those chances must surely be below the average level of other top teams.
Liverpool's resurgence under Dalglish has been pretty good, but I'm still far from impressed with them this season. Fernando Torres has been sold, and Steven Gerrard is injured for the rest of the season, and without those two players they are a very workmanlike team. I'm sure they will work very hard to contain Arsenal, but the possession statistics should be weighed very heavily on the Arsenal side. It's what Arsenal do with that possession which will decide the outcome of this game.
Both Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez are capable of causing Arsenal problems at the back, but without good service they will be limited in what they can do. It's up to every single Arsenal player to put pressure on Liverpool when they are in possession, to make sure that the service they receive is not good enough to cause Arsenal problems. Carroll can be very strong in the air, and he has a great shot with his left foot, but he is nowhere near the player Torres was, when Torres was interested in playing for Liverpool. Suarez had a great World Cup for Uruguay, and this will be a great opportunity for him to show what he can do in the Premier League, with the whole world watching.
Despite the threats posed by Liverpool, Arsenal have more than enough in their locker to win this game by a few goals. I hope they can do just that, but I have a funny feeling they will play in the usual Arsenal manner, and just about scrape a victory.As long as they win I will be happy, and I'm sure the vast majority of Arsenal fans will be happy too, but if they can come out fighting and win the game in style, it could really be the boost that they need to put some real confidence back in the team. With The Spuds game coming up on Wednesday night, it would be great for Arsenal to go in to it after a commanding performance and victory over Liverpool.
I'm predicting a 2-1 win for Arsenal, but of course I'll be a lot happier if it ends up a much better scoreline for them. I think RVP will get his name on the score sheet again, as he continues his record of a goal for every Premier League game he has started this season. He has already beaten his best haul of Premier League goals in a season, despite the fact he has only started 12 games. Where would Arsenal be right now if he could stay fit for a whole season. It's a question which might never be answered, as he has never managed to go through a full season without some sort of serious injury in the past.
That's it for today.
Here's a look at Arsenal's most famous victory over Liverpool.
See You Tomorrow.