It’s a make-or-break weekend in the Premier League for Liverpool, whose top four pursuit could come to an untimely end with defeat at Arsenal on Saturday lunchtime.
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This is the sad reality for Brendan Rodgers and his team, who despite a 13-game unbeaten run stretching from mid-December until their defeat against Manchester United at the end of last month, could soon find themselves eight points adrift of a Champions League spot.
Liverpool have only won once in eight attempts since the Gunners move to the Emirates Stadium, and will need to banish memories of their recent record against the North London giants if they are to take a step closer to fulfilling the first of their major ambitions this season.
The Reds face the prospect of crucial back-to-back games in the next few days, with an FA Cup quarter-final replay following their trip to the capital. Consecutive defeats would, as former Red Alan Kennedy puts it, leave Rodgers with nothing to play for.
The Northern Irishman will have to cope without suspended duo Martin Skrtel and Steven Gerrard – who both begin three-match bans this weekend – while he has major injury concerns over Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana.
With Liverpool facing up to the prospect of being without four of their regular players, it could be time for them to reconsider their current 3-4-3 formation. Against United, they were exposed at the wing-back positions, and will need more solidity against the Gunners.
We’re suggesting a return to a 4-3-3 formation. Emre Can moves out to right-back, while Alberto Moreno drops deeper on the left. Kolo Toure’s experience should get him the nod ahead of Dejan Lovren, while Mamadou Sakho ought to continue in the middle.
Knowing that Can and Moreno love to get forward, the Reds need extra protection in front of the back four. Step forward Lucas Leiva – who is set to return from injury after declaring himself fit to play this week. He should start alongside Joe Allen, who deserves to keep his place.
The pairing of Allen and Lucas should directly deal with the threat of Arsene Wenger’s impressive arsenal of attacking options, including Alexis Sanchez, Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil. Toure and Skrtel will meanwhile have their hands-full with Olivier Giroud.
Jordan Henderson will captain the team, likely from the head of a midfield trio, and will be asked to play his usual box-to-box role, supporting both attack and defence. The England international will need a big game up against the improving Francis Coquelin.
Lallana’s absence leaves Raheem Sterling – eager to prove a point following this week’s continued contract reports – and Philippe Coutinho, as the obvious pairing in the attacking midfield positions. They will provide the hub of the Reds creativity, and will assist the central striker.
With Sturridge doubtful at present, the door is open for one of Mario Balotelli, Fabio Borini and Rickie Lambert to enjoy a rare chance to impress. Following last weekend’s impressive showing at the Anfield charity match, we’ve gone for the Italian, who is admittedly in the last chance saloon.
Balotelli has scored just four goals in all competitions so far this season, but if he can show the same desire he did at Anfield, he could make a surprise return to Rodgers’ first-team plans. It’s a huge risk considering his recent record, but there seems little point in leaving him to waste away.