Pre-Match Report

Premier League: Liverpool v Arsenal - Preview

By Richard Clarke

Perhaps you can put it down to the fact this is a Leap Year - the 29th day, the extra 24 hours, the slight readjustment of time.

Whatever the reason, February was a funny old month for Arsenal. They started by rolling up their sleeves at Bolton and then rolled in seven goals against Blackburn. Thierry Henry's goal-scoring goodbye secured a vital comeback win against in-form Sunderland but they would dumped out of the FA Cup on the same sodden surface seven days later. In between they were mauled in Milan to such an extent that it left their Champions League chances in intensive care.

Then, of course, there was the Tottenham game; a 5-2 victory that might just revitalise Arsenal's season.

Yes, February was microcosm of the season - up and down, good and bad, heartening and dispiriting.

Its mixed nature meant even Arsene Wenger admitted to looking over his shoulder in search of the real recipient when he was handed the Manager of the Month award on Friday.

However, when you think about it, that trophy is decided on Premier League form in February and nine points from 12 is as good as anyone right now. And the nature of those three victories last month were, in different ways, exceptional.

OK, so far and good.

Now get this....

March is actually Wenger's most profitable month. His all-time League record in that period reads P52 W36 D10 L6 with a very healthy average of 2.27 points per game. A similar return in their five fixtures this March would surely see them cement their credentials for a top-four place.

But they start the month at one of the toughest places to squeeze out a victory.

Liverpool are unbeaten in 12 games at Anfield this term, conceding just eight goals in the process. Yes they have just scored 14 themselves and, from that dozen fixtures, they have gleaned just four wins but only leaders Manchester City can claim to have a more impregnable fortress.

The side managed by Kenny Dalglish are seventh right now and, although they are basking in the glory of their first trophy in six years, there is a real danger of slipping out of the race for the top four. However Wenger still sees this game as a major hurdle.

"Liverpool are a team who are in the fight for the Champions League places, and that's why this game is so vital for us," said Wenger at Friday's press conference. "They always have a big support and I have a big respect for their crowd always because they are behind their team. You know when you get up there that you have to be prepared for a game with a big pace and a big drive from Liverpool. So you want to play your game and not hide.

"I know they have played 12 games at home and won only four. They have faced many teams who defended very well against them but it's still difficult to explain because they have always had good dominance, always looked a threat and they have good strikers too. There is no obvious reason for a difference. You watch a game, and you think they will win that 2-0 or 3-0 and, in the end, they finish with a draw. But overall they are a good side."

Wenger will hope that the Carling Cup Final might have a similar affect Liverpool as it did on Arsenal 12 months. However he is doubtful and argues it was never their priority anyway.

"I don't think it will change them personally," said the Frenchman. "I think their main target is to be in the Champions League. It can help boost their confidence a little bit but they know as well that they are going for something different."

When he spoke to the press on Friday morning, Wenger was waiting on tests for Robin van Persie (groin) and Thomas Vermaelen (ankle). While Alex Song had yet to return from international duty with Cameroon. If the midfielder was to be absent then Abou Diaby may get a surprise recall into the start XI but, with only two games under his belt this season, even his manager called that proposition a "massive gamble".

Having gained so much momentum with that comeback against Spurs you sense this could be a huge moment for this Arsenal side. At 2-0 down last Sunday, the gap between the two teams in the table looked like being an unassailable 13 points. However victory at Anfield this Saturday lunchtime would reduce that to four ahead of Tottenham's home fixture against Manchester United the following day.

But this particular crystal ball is always going to be cloudy and the fixture lists of the top-four contenders are set-up for such intrigue during March. Don't torture yourself. Arsenal, remember, are only in the Champions League places by virtue of having scored more goals than Chelsea. They must continue to look down first.

As for Wenger, Tottenham, nor the little matter of that second leg against Milan on Tuesday, can draw his focus right now.

"The priority is the League," he said. "We know after that in the Champions League we have that massive score against us. If we get a good result at Liverpool I think we have a chance.

"But for us it's important to confirm the game we played against Tottenham at Liverpool and then we can focus completely on the Champions League and have a real go because what we did in Milan was just not what we do usually.

"Chelsea, Newcastle, Liverpool and us are in the fight for fourth place. We have a good opportunity on Saturday to put Liverpool really behind us. We want to take that.

"We know we are in a special fight with Chelsea, who are on the same level of points, so every point we can take now is vital until the end of the season."

And surely anything snatched away from Fortress Anfield on Saturday will be viewed as priceless.


Team news:

Arsenal - Vermaelen (doubt - ankle), Van Persie (doubt - groin), Rosicky (doubt - back), Ramsey (ankle), Santos (ankle). Mertesacker (ankle), Coquelin (hamstring), Djourou (thigh), Squillaci (groin), Wilshere (ankle).

Liverpool - Gerrard (doubt - hamstring), Johnson (hamstring), Agger (rib), Lucas (knee)


Random Facts

The last three games between the sides have seen three red cards

Half of the last 12 meetings have been draws.

Liverpool have won just one of the last nine matches - the 2-0 success at Emirates Stadium this season.

Arsenal have kept one clean-sheet against Liverpool in their last 15 fixtures.

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