Match Preview: Arsenal v. Liverpool, 11.02.13

Paul Gilham

Team news, ways to watch, and a full preview as Liverpool head to North London to face Arsenal in their biggest test of the early season.

Anybody nervous? Good, me neither. Last weekend's performance against West Brom was Liverpool's most comprehensive of the season, a dominant display from front to back that--one ten-minute second-half spell aside--left us feeling dangerously optimistic. Combined with the fact that we're nine matches gone in the Premier League season and Liverpool sit joint-second on points, behind Chelsea by only one on goal difference, all of this potential for positivity has me feeling miserable.

Thankfully there's a healthy dose of reality around the corner, or at least a run of matches that'll let us know whether or not reality includes a sustained Liverpool challenge for the top four. It kicks off in earnest tomorrow, but there's going to be some white-knuckle stuff over the next few months.

Both Liverpool and Arsenal will expect to learn something about their prospects when they meet at the Emirates, and the current league leaders will feel confident despite two losses in their last two home matches. Their season-opening loss to Aston Villa--which also came at the Emirates--seems like it came from a different year, largely due to the fact that they went twelve matches unbeaten in response, rising to the top of the league table and the most challenging Champions League group along the way.

A large part of their revival has been attributed to the arrival of Mesut Ozil, who provided an emotional and practical upgrade immediately. The signing of Mathieu Flamini has been similarly effective in a midfield desperately in need of a defensive shield, though Arsene Wenger will have to do without the Frenchman after he limped off against Crystal Palace last weekend. He joins a fairly large contingent on the sidelines, with Theo Walcott, Serge Gnabry, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Lukas Podolski, Yaya Sanogo, and Abu Diaby also ruled out.

That leaves few surprises in Wenger's eleven; Wojiech Szczesny will start in goal, Bacary Sagna, Per Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny, and Kieran Gibbs form the back line, Mikel Arteta Aaron Ramsey, and Jack Wilshere will be asked to fill the void left by Flamini's absence, and Ozil and Santi Cazorla will provide attacking support for the much improved Olivier Giroud.

For Liverpool:

Mignolet
Toure Skrtel Sakho
Lucas
Johnson Henderson Gerrard Cissokho
Sturridge Suarez

There's not much left to be worried about on the injury front, with Philippe Coutinho cleared for action and only Jose Enrique and Iago Aspas--along with long-term absentee Sebastian Coates--ruled out. It won't last forever, but Liverpool's relatively clean bill of health couldn't come at a more important time.

Were this a week from tomorrow it would be a no-brainer to start Coutinho, which I bring up here because I think the impact will (or should, in my opinion) be felt most in defense. The three-man midfield seems too important to the overall balance and ability to pressure, and neither of Daniel Sturridge nor Luis Suarez is going anywhere. Coutinho doesn't fit in a three-man midfield, or whatever version of it we got last weekend, but there's a chance to retain the numbers in the middle and include the proper Brazilian if a central defender drops out.

But I'd be surprised to see Coutinho in the eleven straightaway after such a long layoff; I'd much prefer he come on for a strong half-hour cameo than start and run out of gas early in the second half. On talent he's first-choice every time out, but I think he's not back regularly until after the international break. That means three at the back continues, and there will be continued questions about whether or not Daniel Agger should be in the lineup. Arsenal's class up front demands cool heads, and while Agger might be preferable to Martin Skrtel in that regard, it doesn't look as though Agger's announced return to the squad comes tomorrow.

The rest would be unchanged, with the same setup and squad as against West Brom. Lucas' role will be crucial, as will the support provided by Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson. The absence of Flamini leaves Liverpool with the upper hand in midfield, and if the trio can repeat their displays in the impressive win last weekend, it could be a very good day. And, as always, there's the potential for the day to turn out well even if the rest of the side struggles given the presence of Sturridge and Suarez, who are starting to use combination and competition with one another to devastating effect.

Kickoff is set for 5:30PM GMT/1:30PM EST, with Sky Sports 1 airing the match live in England and NBC/NBC Sports Live Extra carrying coverage in the US. It's NBC proper for those stateside, so even those without the added services should be able to watch it on TV. We'll have the overnight open thread as usual, and will likely include an early Saturday thread for the day's other action if there's interest. The matchday post will run parallel to all that, with lineups included when they're released an hour before the match starts. If you haven't already, join the community on the Liverpool Offside.

Hope you'll be around for what's sure to be a captivating--and hopefully enjoyable--day.

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