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Match Preview: Liverpool v. Arsenal, 03.03.12

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Arsenal head to Anfield as the fourth-place contenders square off in the opener of another pivotal month for Liverpool. The guests will be riding high on the heels of their 5-2 come-from-behind victory over Spurs at the Emirates, which wrapped up just before kickoff of Liverpool's League Cup triumph at Wembley. There's little room for error for the hosts, who even with a game in hand can only close the gap to four points, and for the visitors it's a chance to pull away.

It'd be nice to revel in the League Cup win for a little while longer, but Liverpool have to get back to business, and there's really no better way to do it than in another match with decently high stakes. For much of the Premier League season Liverpool have been able to stay in the Champions League conversation via the struggles of their direct competition, and while that's been nice enough, there's a point at which they need to start to do the work themselves.

This is that point.

Arsenal arrive with a healthy dose of optimism, having their prospects boosted suddenly by a surging comeback against Spurs on Sunday, hitting their North London rivals for five unanswered goals after going down 0-2 in the opening thirty minutes. Spurs' defending was shambolic for nearly the entire match, but for an Arsenal side often accused of not having enough bottle or steel, it was a terrific show of fight and one that, after the losses to Milan and Sunderland, was desperately needed.

And tomorrow's a perfect opportunity for them to build even more steam for the run-in, even if there's doubts for Arsene Wenger about the availability of Robin van Persie and Thomas Vermaelen. The former's obviously more important to the club's fortunes, as he's had one of his finest seasons in an Arsenal shirt and almost single-handedly kept them afloat. They'll be without Aaron Ramsey for sure, and Thomas Rosicky, who was very good against Spurs, might be missing as well. But they'll have enough experience and skill to make the midfield concerning, with Mikel Arteta and Alex Song likely to feature, and Yossi Benayoun available to link play with Theo Walcott, Gervinho, and, if he's fit, van Persie. Vermaelen would be a big miss for a defense that's looked vulnerable at times despite Laurent Koscielny's improvement and Bacary Sagna's mostly stable presence.

Who starts for Liverpool?

Reina
Johnson Carragher Skrtel Enrique
Spearing Adam
Henderson
Kuyt Carroll Downing

---Lucas is apparently walking without crutches but still months away from training, and Daniel Agger's cracked rib will keep him out for a few weeks. Steven Gerrard is a doubt after coming off against the Dutch and Glen Johnson's fitness is questionable after pulling out of the England squad midweek.

---That leaves Kenny Dalglish with the fairly straightforward-looking swap of Jamie Carragher for Agger, which contradicts what seems like a general consensus that Sebastian Coates or even Martin Kelly would be better options. But Carragher coming in is mostly a formality, with Coates not seasoned enough and Kelly unlikely. He might have a shot a featuring on the right, but if Johnson's fit, there's no question he starts on the bench.

---The fitness of the captain is obviously a major concern, and it leaves a hole in a midfield that's struggled to find any sort of stability in both personnel and performance. That they'll need a three-man midfield was mostly a certainty even if Gerrard was fit, so in his absence I'm guessing we'll get Jordan Henderson, Jay Spearing, and Charlie Adam in some sort of midfield package. Henderson's the easy bet to push forward, which gives him license to roam and settle back into a role in which he's looked at his best.

---Up front there's more uncertainty, with Stewart Downing turning in his best display of the season against Cardiff, Craig Bellamy fresh and ready to go after coming on late at Wembley, Andy Carroll generally trending towards form, and Luis Suarez looking to find consistent form after a rocky few months. I'll go out on a limb and say that after an occasionally tired-looking 120 minutes on Sunday and a full ninety on Wednesday in Uruguay's friendly with Romania, Suarez doesn't make the eleven and comes on late. If he's out I'd hope that Dirk Kuyt features, with Downing rewarded for his display last weekend and Bellamy, Maxi, and Suarez available off the bench.

What's the most important factor for the Reds?

It hasn't exactly been smooth sailing for Liverpool when Arsenal's come to visit in league---three draws and a loss in the past four seasons followed the 4-1 win back in March of 2007, which came after two losses in four days for the hosts in the League and FA Cup. That's mostly mirrored Liverpool's struggles at the Emirates, so there's hope that with the hoodoo lifted there earlier in the season, they can experience a similar turnaround of recent results at home. What they'll need to do to achieve that isn't much of a surprise, as actually converting chances and continuing their solid play at the back without a major contributor to their success is paramount.

Coverage tomorrow will be carried by ESPN2/ESPN3.com in the United States and Sky Sports 1 in the UK, making it easy enough for most to see the match live. Reminder that if you're in the US and on a military base or college campus (or can sign in with a VPN), ESPN3 is available. Everyone else can check out the streams we'll link to in the matchday thread, which will go up late tonight given the early start time. Team sheets will run around an hour before kickoff, as usual.

Hope you all have a nice end to the week, and we'll see you back here tomorrow morning.