After what felt like an eternity of waiting, the Barclays Premier League returns to action this weekend. In the last round of games, Liverpool’s hopes of finishing in the top four took a devastating blow as they crashed to a 2-1 defeat against bitter rivals Manchester United at Anfield. The storied Merseyside squad now sits five points away from Champions League qualification and face a must win match against a streaking Arsenal side at the Emirates on Saturday.
Before the loss to United, the Reds had been on a season-high 13-game unbeaten streak. The return of star striker Daniel Sturridge, as well as the meteoric rise in form of players like Philippe Coutinho and Jordan Henderson in the midfield, have fueled a resurgence in a side that in eighth place at the start of 2015. Coutinho has shown himself as one of the best creative midfielders in the game, and this isn’t the first time that I’ve lauded his ability. The Brazilian can spark attacks whenever he pleases as well as casually score 30-yard-screamers. He will provide Francis Coquelin with quite the defensive test when they lineup across from each other.
One of the major distractions for the Anfield faithful before this game has been the contract situation of Raheem Sterling. The young English winger, whose contract has two years remaining on it, has yet to resign with the club and rumors of interest from Real Madrid have started to creep into the media. Sterling has been one of the side’s best players for the past two seasons and his departure would leave a gaping hole on the right side of the park. It will be interesting to see whether or not the ongoing media speculation and fan curiosity will have any effect on the winger’s attention to the game.
The hosts, on the other hand, have been absolutely unstoppable since their disappointing home loss to Monaco in the Champions League. Arsene Wenger’s side has cruised to six straight wins, including a famous victory against my beloved Manchester United in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup. Olivier Giroud has scored six goals in these last six games and the result of his battle against the center back pairing of Liverpool will be one of the key factors in deciding who will leave the Emirates with points Saturday.
The last time these teams met in December, it took a 97th minute from Martin Škrtel to salvage a draw for Liverpool at Anfield. During the match, however, Liverpool dominated possession as well as outshooting their visitors 27 to 7. Brendan Rodgers will undoubtedly find a more difficult matchup when his team travels to London. The Emirates has been a fortress for Arsenal this season, with the Gunners only conceding one loss in 14 matches. If Liverpool is unable to escape this match with all three points, any hope they have of playing in the top flight of Europe next season will almost certainly be dashed. A win for Arsenal paired with a Manchester City loss/draw will see the Gunners jump to second place, but chances of surpassing Chelsea to claim the league title are slim to none.
In my dream scenario, this match would end with both of these teams losing by some obscure loophole in the FIFA handbook. Sepp Blatter, how big of a check do I have to write for this to happen? If for some reason I can’t find that loophole, I believe that Arsenal will continue their ascent up the table and that Liverpool’s morale will take another blow as they fall to the Gunners 2-0.