Liverpool takes to the road for their first away match of the season on Saturday (7:45 a.m. ET) against Arsenal. Both squads will be looking to earn the full three points for the first time this season after dropping points in their respective openers against Sunderland and Newcastle.
Liverpool enjoyed a full week off between matches and will be hoping that an uninterrupted week of training will produce a sharper display than their rusty opening match performance. Liverpool supporters will be happy to hear that, following one of the most injury-plagued seasons in recent memory, the club is inching closer toward full health.
"I think there is only Glen Johnson who might be a doubt, but other than that everybody's relatively fit," said manager Kenny Dalglish in his pre-match news conference.
Besides Johnson, club captain Steven Gerrard will remain sidelined as he recovers from groin surgery, targeting a return sometime in September. The Reds will face a reeling Arsenal side decimated by suspensions, injuries and transfers away from the club.
The Gunners failed to impress in their goalless draw against Newcastle last Saturday. Despite controlling 66 percent of the possession, Arsenal only managed two shots on goal as they lacked a final killer ball and looked indecisive in the final third. Their encounter with the Magpies, more specifically the Magpies’ Joey Barton, has left Arsenal without the services of midfield lynchpin Alex Song and newly signed attacker Gervinho. Song's stamp and Gervinho's slap on the controversial Barton has landed both players three match suspensions, keeping them out of Arsenal's crucial early season fixtures against Liverpool, Manchester United and Swansea City.
Unlike Liverpool, Arsenal did not reap the benefits of a week off and instead hosted Italian side Udinese for the first leg of their Champions League play-in battle. While Arsenal left Tuesday's match clinging to a one-nil advantage, they lost defenders Kieran Gibbs and Johan Djourou to hamstring injuries. To compound matters further, the Gunners also lost Gibbs' backup Armand Traore to a groin injury suffered playing in a reserve match against Manchester United on Monday. Jack Wilshere, who blossomed into one of the best young midfielders in the Premier League last year, and Abou Diaby have yet to play this season following ankle injuries to both players over the summer. Liverpool fans will be hoping that Wilshere progresses enough to feature against Manchester United on the 28th targeted as his earliest possible return date.
While the suspensions and injuries are temporary problems for Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, the Frenchman has also had to deal with the mutiny of two vital squad members in Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri. The former captain Fabregas finally completed his switch to Barcelona earlier this week, this after a grating two-year media pursuit by the Catalan club. Meanwhile, Nasri, one of last season's brightest Premier League stars, is reportedly coming closer to pushing through his desired move to Manchester City and has not yet featured for Arsenal this season.
However, Wenger announced on Friday that Nasri would be part of the squad for the match, saying that, "You do your job until the last day of your life at the club and all the rest is speculation."
Arsenal should still be able to maintain possession in their fluid 4-3-3 system and will hope that veteran striker Robin van Persie puts away any chances that fall his way. With so many players missing, it is hard to predict what lineup Wenger will select on Saturday but he does have a deep, albeit inexperienced, roster to choose from.
Besides van Persie, Arsenal can also call upon Marouane Chamakh, Andrei Arshavin and Theo Walcott as options for the attacking front three with the absence of Gervinho creating an extra opening in the starting 11.
The Gunners will have to rely upon youth in midfield with Emmanuel Frimpong (19 years old) and Aaron Ramsey (20) fighting to show why they deserve playing time in the void of Fabregas, Wilshere, Diaby, Song and Nasri.
Meanwhile, Tomas Rosicky has been ruled out for the match due to injury.
Wenger faces a headache in defense as he must either shift a veteran central defender to left back, the most likely candidate being Thomas Vermaelen, or toss another youngster into the fire in the form of 19-year-old Carl Jenkinson who normally plays on the right. Right back is suitably covered by Barcary Sagna, although one must wonder how three matches within seven days will affect the Frenchman, and Wenger has Laurent Koscielny for one of the center back slots. Depending on how he handles the left back conundrum, Wenger can pair Koscielny either with Vermaelen, the usual center half duo, or with Sebastien Squillaci who did not play well last year for Arsenal following his transfer from Spanish side Sevilla.
Liverpool can expect to face young Polish goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny who showed some promise over the second half of the last campaign.
On the other side of the ball, Liverpool’s near full health means Dalglish has plenty of options for the first 11, although it would be hard to imagine wholesale changes from last week’s up-and-down performance against Sunderland.
Formation wise, the Reds lined up in something of a fluid 4-4-2 last week with versatile attacker Luis Suarez playing a more advanced role alongside striker Andy Carroll. Whether Suarez stays in that advanced role or drops deeper into the gap between Carroll and midfield, making the formation something of a 4-2-3-1, this fixture is a massive chance for Liverpool’s January signings to get on the same page. Carroll’s physical strength makes him a nightmare matchup for Arsenal’s small back four, something he showed last season while still a member of Newcastle. Meanwhile, Suarez could be in line for a vintage performance against a patchwork Arsenal defense and midfield that will need to constantly communicate to shut down the aggressive Uruguayan.
Things are a bit more complicated in midfield where Dalglish has several choices to make. Winger Stewart Downing and holding midfielder Lucas seem to be safe bets to start, however the return to fitness of Raul Meireles makes it possible, but unlikely, that he will supplant Charlie Adam alongside Lucas in central midfield. The biggest question remains on the right wing where Jordan Henderson failed to impress in his opening day start against Sunderland, leading to calls for Dirk Kuyt to return to the starting lineup. Most fans will remember it was in this fixture at the end of last season where Kuyt buried a penalty 12 minutes into extra time, salvaging a draw for Liverpool and quashing Arsenal’s title hopes in the progress. Kuyt may lack a smooth first touch, but his work rate, eye for goal, and leadership qualities make him a good candidate to start an important early fixture while the Reds still try to gel as a team. Despite a positive preseason, Alberto Aquilani does not seem to be an option for Dalglish as the Italian still seeks a transfer away from Anfield.
In defense, Jose Enrique will most likely start again at left back whether or not Fabio Aurelio has recovered from his latest injury. Equally, expect Dalglish to use the same center back pairing from the Sunderland match as Jaime Carragher will captain the squad alongside the as-of-yet still healthy Daniel Agger. Right back is the only real doubt as Jon Flanagan may be substituted for Martin Kelly following Flanagan’s underwhelming performance against Sunderland. The Reds will be happy to have Martin Skrtel back fit to provide back up for central defense, potentially a factor in allowing the versatile Kelly to start on the right unlike last week when he was the only central cover from the bench.
In goal, count on the ever reliable Pepe Reina, whom the Gunners tried — but failed — to sign at the close of last summer much to the relief of Liverpool supporters.
The Reds will be hoping to take advantage of Arsenal’s woes and snag a vital away win against a fellow top four hopeful, however Dalglish has sought to quell any feelings of overconfidence ahead of the fixture saying, "It’s still going to be a difficult game for us and they’re still a team I have the greatest respect for … but hopefully we can make it as difficult for them as they will for us."
Try as King Kenny might to downplay expectations, wins on the road against top four opposition are not easy to come by and the Reds will feel disappointed if they come away from this golden opportunity without three points in the bag.