Coming into the busiest part of the Premier league calendar that sees teams playing four games in the space of eleven days, no game comes bigger than Arsenal’s trip to Liverpool’s Anfield ground, where both teams will be desperate for a prosperous Christmas period as a springboard for a more successful second half of the season.
After their euphoric if ultimately unsuccessful title chase last season, this season has been one of almost uninterrupted disappointment and underachievement for Brendan Rodgers’s team. Much of course can be attributed to the departure of Luis Suarez and the enforced absence of Daniel Sturridge, as no team could not miss a strike partnership that produced 52 league goals last term. Of their meagre six league wins in sixteen outings, really only in their early-season 3-0 win at Tottenham (with Strurridge) and their 3-1 win at Leicester a couple of weeks ago have they won in any way like they performed last season. Much has been said of Steven Gerrard’s decline in form and fitness, but he remains the best and most influential midfielder they have got, and he is working with Rodgers to get the best out his tiring legs. Many of Rodgers’ summer signings have turned out to bedamp squibs and squad fillers and have not really filled the gaps, and sadly that includes the talented, flawed and in then end disappointing Mario Balotelli, as well as the more important failure of Dejan Lovren, who was proclaimed to be the answer to Liverpool’s defensive frailties. On the plus side, the departure from the Champions League seemed almost like a relief, and their subsequent 3-0 defeat at Old Trafford belies the fact that Liverpool showed signs of improvement going forward, as indicated by David De Gea being nominated as man of the match for his nine saves. On Tuesday, Liverpool were almost expected to come unstuck against a vibrant Bournemouth side in the League Cup, but despite a few late scares, they did the job clinically and impressively in a 3-1 win that showcased Raheem Sterling at his quicksilver best, as he bagged two goals. The Reds now have a two-legged semi-final with Chelsea to look forward to.
Arsenal fans continue to bay for Arsene Wenger’s head every time they lose a game, but the fact remains that the Gunners still sit handily in sixth spot, despite a first half of the season fraught with defensive slipups and calamitous periods on the field. But taking away their nightmare first half at Stoke, where they conceded three goals, they have won their other five games since losing at home to Manchester United at the end of November. This included impressive home wins against Borussia Dortmund, Southampton and a resurgent Newcastle United, as well as a comprehensive 4-1 dismantling of Galatasaray in Turkey last week. Eight goals in two games, including a brace apiece for Lukas Podolski, Aaron Ramsey, Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla suggests that Wenger has options galore going forward, especially with Alexis Sanchez still the star performer up front, Danny Welbeck alongside him, and Theo Walcott on the brink of a fulltime comeback from injury. With the fit-again Matthieu Debuchy able to deputise while Laurent Koscielny recovers from injury, and Wojciech Szczęsny back between the sticks, the Gunners are starting to look like a fully galvanized unit again. Even the absence to injury of Ramsey and Jack Wilshire should not disrupt them too much, such is their strength in depth in midfield, and a good run over the Christmas period could well see them overtake London rivals, West Ham United, and stumbling pretenders, Southampton, to be occupying a Champions League qualifying spot by the New Year.