By Chris Harris
There will be a fair bit of empathy at Anfield this weekend. Like Arsenal, Liverpool are also-rans in this season's title race. And like Arsenal, Liverpool tumbled out of both domestic cup competitions in a matter of days.
Of course it was Arsène Wenger's side who landed those bodyblows on their Merseyside rivals with nine goals in two quickfire visits to Anfield in January. But, two months on, Liverpool do at least have one trophy to fight for, although they will have to get past another of Arsenal's conquerors, PSV Eindhoven, to progress in Europe.
The shadow of Tuesday's Champions League clash with the Dutch champions will loom large at Anfield on Saturday, giving Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez something of a dilemma when he finalises his team and tactics.
The Spaniard will surely want revenge for three crushing defeats at the hands of Arsenal this season. He also knows a home win will boost Liverpool's hopes of claiming third spot in the Premiership. But will Benitez keep something in reserve for a full-blown tilt at the biggest prize in Europe?
We put that question to Chris Bascombe of the Liverpool Echo ahead of Saturday's game. Read on for his views on Benitez's likely tactics, Liverpool's 'stop-start' season, Jamie Carragher's player of the season credentials and the room for improvement in the Anfield squad.
THE STORY SO FAR
"It's probably been quite similar to Arsenal except Liverpool still have one competition to play for. What Arsenal did to Liverpool in the two domestic cups was repeated at Arsenal's expense by Chelsea, Blackburn and PSV. It can all be over very quickly. As for Liverpool they made a very slow start in the league, the new players took time to adapt, and it was very disappointing to be so far behind in the title race before they got going. Liverpool found their form in the winter, winning nine games out of 10, they beat Chelsea and there was brief talk of being back in the title race. But that didn't last long. It has been another stop-start season, you always feel there is more to come because they are capable of great performances, but they need to produce that consistently."
MAN OF THE MOMENT
"Jamie Carragher. He had a slow start to the season when the likes of Sissoko were more impresssive but Carragher's performances since then make him a worthy player of the season. He has been particularly good at Anfield and should really be in the top three when the national awards are handed out. Carragher is an out-and-out defender and has proved himself to be a quick learner after playing in so many positions. There was a rawness about him when he came into the Liverpool team, we thought he was a tough guy, a David Batty-type player in central midfield, but he's reinvented himself. Carragher moved to left back and grew into that role superbly, then he went to right back and improved in his attacking play. Now he's a centre back and he continues to absorb information."
"Has Benitez brought quantity rather than quality? There might be some truth to that but he obviously thought the quality was there last summer. Craig Bellamy cost £6 million and he has done OK but he hasn't lived up to the expectations of those who thought he might do a similar job to Michael Owen. Jermaine Pennant is another one who arrived to use Anfield as a platform to get in the England side but he has been in and out of the team. The fact Steven Gerrard is back on the right now says a lot. Some of Benitez's signings have been a big success. Daniel Agger is a class act, he just goes from strength to strength. Momo Sissoko is still only 22 and has been compared to Patrick Vieira. We've had a few players compared to Vieira in the past who have been plain embarrassing but Sissoko is different, he has lots of attributes."
CAUSE FOR OPTIMISM
"The squad is better than it was a year ago but, having said that, Liverpool are going to struggle to get the same number of points. Djibril Cisse was up front last year and he has been replaced by a better player, Bellamy. Liverpool's defensive strength is still intact, but overall the team is five per cent better when perhaps they should be 15 per cent better. Manchester United are the only team to beat Liverpool at Anfield in the league and they were lucky to do so."
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
"Liverpool's away record hasn't been impressive and as far as the squad is concerned I still think they need two strikers, a wide man and a full back. Benitez tried to address those problems last summer but they need more quality. Last year there was talk about buying the winger Daniel Alves but he was deemed too expensive at £15 million. He would probably cost £20 million now. If they could make the decision again I think they might have got him."
"The players who haven't been away on international duty tend to get a look-in so that means Peter Crouch, Pennant, Robbie Fowler and Fabio Aurelio. You can expect a lot of those players to be in the squad, especially with the Champions League game against PSV on Tuesday. The team which wins on Saturday will have a bit more breathing space as far as Champions League qualification is concerned but I suspect that Wenger and Benitez are too concerned about whether they finish third or fourth, as long as they are in the top four. If there is a losing team on Saturday they might have to sweat a bit more before the end of the season but it's hard to see them failing to qualify."
IMPRESSIONS OF ARSENAL
"From an Arsenal point of view it's a good time to be going to Anfield with the PSV game looming on Tuesday. Liverpool will need to play a lot better than they did in the Carling Cup tie in January. I don't think you'll see a different approach from Liverpool, especially in the first 20 minutes. They will go for it and as usual the first goal will probably be decisive."
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