By Chris Harris
"Manchester United have still got to come to Emirates Stadium."
We've heard that time and again in recent months as Arsenal have tracked their old rivals at the top of the Premier League. But the significance of winning that potential title 'six-pointer' on May 1 will count for nothing if Arsene Wenger's squad fluff their lines in the next week.
A season-defining seven days starts with the visit of Liverpool on Sunday, continues with a local derby at White Hart Lane on Wednesday and concludes with a traditionally tricky trip to Bolton on Easter Day. Maximum points from that trilogy is a lot to ask but it might be necessary to ensure United's trip south remains relevant.
Having turned the proverbial corner with a win at Blackpool last weekend, Arsenal's week has been dominated by off-field matters - KSE's offer for the Club on Monday and the sad death of Danny Fiszman on Wednesday. Having paid his respects to his former colleague, Wenger's gaze returned to matters on the pitch on Friday and he is in no doubt that his players have put the misery of their recent cup exits behind them.
"This team is focused," said the Frenchman. "I've told you many times I'm very proud to manage this team because they are focused, they want to do well.
"Unfortunately we have been hit very hard but we have not been out of every competition early on having not performed. This team has given absolutely everything to perform in every competition and we are still today in the championship.
"We lost against Barcelona by just a goal, we did not lose against them with an ugly performance, we produced in the two games what we could and we did as well as we could against maybe the best team at the moment in the world and we were very close.
"Nobody takes into consideration that in football you lose sometimes, but it is as well how you lose."
Losing is not an option on Sunday but this is arguably a bad time to face Liverpool. Pepe Reina's flap on the opening weekend of the season may have gifted Arsenal a point at Anfield and set the tone for a five-month malaise that precipitated Roy Hodgson's removal as manager, but the Reds have been on the rise as of late.
Eyebrows were raised when Kenny Dalglish was handed the caretaker reins in January - his previous game as a manager of a top-flight English club was Newcastle's 1998 FA Cup Final defeat to Arsenal - but the old Kop hero has already stockpiled 23 Premier League points to Hodgson's 25 - in eight fewer games.
"It was strange to see him [Dalglish] back because for a while he was Director of Football at Liverpool so it looked like he had decided not to come back into the game," said Wenger. "But certainly Liverpool has a special meaning for him and that is why he decided to come back.
"Liverpool have done well since then. They had a slow start but you expected them to come back to some decent performances. The confidence dropped early in the season and then it is very difficult. Since they have come back and they had as well the bad luck of Steven Gerrard being ruled out for a long time, but you are not surprised that Liverpool is one of the best teams in this league."
Galvanised by Dalglish, Liverpool have also been lifted by the arrival of Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll - paid for with the proceeds of the £50million sale of Fernando Torres to Chelsea. That looks like increasingly savvy business - while Torres waits to break his duck at Stamford Bridge, Suarez and Carroll have shared four goals in nine League starts.
The former is facing Arsenal for the first time; not so the latter. Carroll inflicted as much damage as anyone on Arsenal's title challenge with a towering headed winner when Newcastle visited the Emirates back in November and Wenger knows exactly what to expect from him on Sunday.
"He is physically very strong, he has a good understanding of the game on crosses, long balls, he uses his body well and he is very good in the air," noted the Frenchman. "He is very young as well so there is still a lot to come from him.
"You certainly have in your mind the goal he scored against Manchester City [on Monday], Liverpool's third goal [in a 3-0 win]. It is typically a striker's goal, good anticipation, good deflection of the ball. He is a typical type of English centre forward, Carroll, so we have to keep him quiet."
Wenger pointed out at his pre-match press conference that Nicklas Bendtner is the closest player to Carroll in Arsenal's ranks in terms of strength and aerial ability. Whether or not the Dane gets a chance to prove it this weekend remains to be seen after his manager reported a virtually clean bill of health.
Lukasz Fabianski (shoulder) is the only long-term absentee while Bacary Sagna and Manuel Almunia (both knee) are doubts for Sunday. But Wojciech Szczesny (finger), Alex Song (knee) and Johan Djourou (shoulder) are all expected to return to the squad while even Thomas Vermaelen is back in full training.
It's exactly the news Wenger needed ahead of what has become a bellwether fixture for Arsenal in modern times. Wins at Anfield propelled the Gunners to the title in 1989 (obviously), 1991 and 2002 while a 4-2 win seven Aprils ago proved pivotal to the 'Invincibles' campaign.
"Both teams have always had a very positive philosophy in the games and went forward," reflected Wenger. "We have some good and bad memories but they were always very exciting games.
"Liverpool had a good game on Monday night, we won the day before, so it promises to be a very exciting game. They have a good offensive force with Carroll and Suarez and we are as well an offensive team so it promises to be an interesting game. We have a good opportunity to reduce the distance with Man United and we want of course to take it."
Ah yes, United. In case you hadn't noticed, they have no option but to take their eyes off the Premier League prize this weekend while an FA Cup Semi-Final at Wembley against their Manchester rivals occupies their minds.
By the time they look up, Arsenal could be just four points behind with six games left to play.
If they are, that much-touted May clash at the Emirates will be as significant as ever.
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