Arsenal v Liverpool: Can Reds avoid the final furlong fall of last season?
Arsenal play Liverpool at Emirates Stadium. Kick off 12.45 (UK)
A few seasons ago, as another Arsenal title challenge proved a familiar thin mirage, their one-time midfielder remarked that Arsène Wenger never seemed to grasp that the final five games of a season were totally different to the previous 33.
The final five games Liverpool played last season could make a film in its own right. It would open with an epic 3-2 win over Manchester City, with Steven Gerrard gathering the squad together on the final whistle and delivering an impassioned team talk that this was a prize that must not be thrown away.
Then came another 3-2 win, at Norwich, before “the slip” against Chelsea that wrecked every calculation. A three-goal lead at Crystal Palace was squandered in a schoolboyish attempt to rack up their goal difference. The moment Samir Nasri stroked the ball past Adrian for Manchester City’s first against West Ham, their world was in a thousand pieces. In those five matches, Liverpool had scored 11 and conceded 10 and only the last, a 2-1 win at home to Newcastle, went according to the script.
Now they have eight matches remaining to achieve this season’s reduced goal: a top-four finish. The three at home are straightforward – against Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Queen’s Park Rangers, teams that have not won a league match at Anfield since the early 1990s.
Their fate will be decided at Arsenal today, at Hull (where they lost badly last season), at West Bromwich (where Rodgers lost his first match as Liverpool manager), at Chelsea and at Stoke (where Liverpool have won once in the Premier League).
That is the draft script – how it will film, nobody knows. “The final eight games are going to be exciting,” said Rodgers this week. “For us there is still every possibility. We have made it difficult for ourselves because of our performance against Manchester United but it is achievable. People might look at the Arsenal game as a must-win but for me it is a must-perform game.”
When Liverpool faced Manchester United on 22 March, their momentum demanded that they win. They had not lost in the Premier League since the two sides met at Old Trafford on 14 December. Liverpool had found a smooth rhythm in an adventurous but settled formation. Rodgers was no longer being asked about Mario Balotelli. Manchester United were fourth but clinging on.
And yet Manchester United produced what Gary Neville called the finest display against Liverpool in his memory. “We didn’t keep the ball well enough against Manchester United,” said Rodgers. “In that first half we were never in a position to press or receive the ball.
“We need to keep and protect the ball more – that is a huge part of our game – and we need that against Arsenal. We have to get something from the game.”
At Melwood the international break has crawled as the defeat by United was mulled through while the questions have switched from Balotelli to Raheem Sterling.
First things first. The man who commissioned his own television interview in which he said how flattering it was to be linked with Arsenal – a link made by his own agent – will play. There are some Liverpool managers who, having heard Sterling’s complaints about money, the position he played and his need to win trophies, would have invited him to play in Tuesday’s Under-21 fixture against Fulham.
However, Rodgers possesses rather less room for manoeuvre than the Shanklys, Paisleys and Dalglishes. His brief was to requalify Liverpool for the Champions League and for that he will need Sterling. There is no point and nothing to be gained by making a martyr of the boy.
The loss of Martin Skrtel for his stamp on David De Gea leaves a big enough hole. Just as the dismissal of Jordan Henderson in the final minute of that 3-2 win over Manchester City a year ago proved a decisive factor, Rodgers can ill afford to be without his best centre-half, who in December scored the late equaliser that salvaged a point against Arsenal at Anfield.
The presence of Henderson and Lucas Leiva means that Gerrard will be missed at Arsenal only as a motivator but that is how even the great careers fade. Bryan Robson, a man whom Gerrard so resembles, spent his last day as captain of Manchester United watching the 1994 FA Cup final in a suit.
In one respect, Rodgers would want Gerrard leading the side at the Emirates. Of the team that started against United, only one man –Daniel Sturridge – had won anything in England and that was as a bit-part player with Chelsea.
Whether Rodgers cares to admit it or not, Liverpool cracked last season. They had 45 minutes in front of their own crowd to repair the damage caused by Gerrard’s slip. No team of Jose Mourinho’s, 3-0 up at Selhurst Park, would have launched repeated charges to try to win by a landslide and left themselves so exposed.
Liverpool’s are the failings of youth, a commodity that Rodgers, like Wenger, has always prized. Whatever happens between now and 24 May, this is a policy that will not change. “It is the model of the club,” he said. “Whether I like it or not, that is how the model is set up. The successful teams tend to have an average age of 28-29 and ours will be below that.
“You saw that in the United game, where a lack of experience showed. They are here to learn and when it is like that it will go that way sometimes. But we are not evolving players just to sell them; otherwise you just have to keep rebuilding or restocking your squad.”
If Liverpool fail to make the Champions League, it will not be because of the last few months. They were coming from so far back that any dip in their furious momentum might have derailed them. It was their failure to combine the Premier with the Champions League, the goalless draws at home to Hull and Sunderland, the defeats at Newcastle and Crystal Palace that will weigh heaviest in the reckoning.
Red Alert: Five epic ding-dongs
Sept 1984, First Division:
Arsenal 3-1 Liverpool
Brian Talbot scored twice – the first a stunning free-kick – and Tony Woodcock added another as Arsenal topped the league for the first time in a decade. A depleted Liverpool, without the injured Ian Rush and departed Graeme Souness, scored a late consolation via Alan Kennedy.
Mar 1997, Premiership:
Arsenal 1-2 Liverpool
Robbie Fowler fell over David Seaman’s challenge before asking referee Gerald Ashby to take back the spot-kick he had awarded. Seaman saved the penalty, but Jason McAteer slotted in the rebound.
Jan 2002, FA Cup fourth round:
Arsenal 1-0 Liverpool
Dennis Bergkamp’s goal gained revenge for the previous year’s final defeat as three were sent off. Martin Keown, Bergkamp and the visitors’ Jamie Carragher all saw red – the latter for throwing a coin at supporters.
Apr 2004, Premiership:
Arsenal 4-2 Liverpool
Having gone out of the FA Cup and Champions League in the week, Thierry Henry’s hat-trick inspired Arsenal to come from behind twice in a memorable Good Friday encounter as the “Invincibles” closed in on the title.
Apr 2011, Premier League:
Arsenal 1-1 Liverpool
Robin van Persie appeared to have won the points with a 98th-minute spot-kick, only for Emmanuel Eboué’s foul on Lucas in minute 102 to let Dirk Kuyt an improbable leveller.