By Richard Clarke
Arsène Wenger was recalling the win at Anfield last season.
“When we went to Liverpool and won, it killed off their chances of a Champions League spot and gave us a big lift,” he said.
“We were on a good run when we went there and it was a massive encouragement for us that we would have a chance to be in the Champions League places. That Liverpool game really started convincing us that we would be in there again.”
Of course, Arsenal did eventually reach Europe’s top table and, this time, without the need of a qualifier. Indeed, there is a certain irony that Sunday’s return to Anfield comes just days after the draw for this year’s group stage.
Nothing is a given but Wenger’s men will fancy their chances of finishing ahead of Montpellier, Schalke and Olympiacos to reach the knockout round for the 13th straight year. A mark of quality and consistency of which Wenger is rightly proud.
But the team’s strength was forged upon tests such as Liverpool (a).
Like Tottenham (h), Manchester City (h) and Everton (a), it was a late-season game in which the team proved an important little something to themselves.
These days Premier League football seems to be a constant cycle of questions marks and exclamation marks. Just ask Brendan Rodgers, whose Liverpool side was pilloried for their opening-day defeat at West Brom yet praised for last weekend’s battling draw with Manchester City.
Only wins can really provide the unarguable full stop. For example, Arsenal have not conceded a corner, let alone a goal, this season. The domination over Sunderland and the strength at Stoke bodes well. But having not scored themselves, the manager knows there is a question to answer. And, once again, Anfield could be the prime location for the right response.
“We have worked on our defending and I think we are doing a good job,” said Wenger.
“Last year that we had the lowest number of shots against us in the league. But we have worked on it again with Steve Bould.
“So far this season, we have played against two teams who defended more than they attacked against us. But the real tests will come when we go to places like Liverpool and see how strong we are as a team defensively.
“I am confident we will be strong back there but, of course, as well as that we want to score goals because that is our mark, our brand. I am confident we can do that too.”
Laurent Koscielny is back in the squad having recovered from a calf problem. However, Wojciech Szczesny still faces a fitness test on the rib injury that kept him out of the game at Stoke last weekend.
Liverpool are still settling into life under Rodgers after he took the reins from Kenny Dalglish in the summer. It is a sea-change in every sense.
For example, the latter was one of the greatest players ever to come from Britain while the new man had virtually no professional playing career.
There was a time when Wenger himself was managerial talking point for being, in his own words, a “modest” defender-cum-midfielder in the French league. Now Rodgers and Andre Villas-Boas lead a vanguard of new ‘career coaches’ to have reached the top level.
“There is no pre-determined way,” said Wenger. “It is down to the quality of the people that decides their careers.
“He is doing well, and that is what you want. That people have a personality, a style of play and they gain the confidence of the players.
“Liverpool always try to play good football. They have a history and tradition of playing well. When you go there you always face a team that tries to play. But every manager needs time when he comes in to put his mark on the team and on the club, of course. It takes time.”
Rodgers has been active in the transfer market reshaping his new team. But arguably his most important acquisition has been the midfielder prised from his old side, Swansea City - Joe Allen.
“I watched Liverpool's games against Manchester City and Hearts and I felt Allen gives them a stability when they have the ball.
“But what people don't realise is that he is also a good defender. He defends very well in the middle of the park, so he is a very complete, accomplished player. He is very intelligent tactically and offensively. He never gives the ball away.”
Possession was certainly nine tenths of Rodgers’ lore at Swansea. And it served him wonderfully well - promotion to the Premier League and 11th place last season. The acquisition of Allen suggests the manager will do the same at his new club.
“They play a different style now, they keep the ball more,” said Wenger. “But they have players up front who can be dangerous too.
“In the last game they had Borini, Suarez and Sterling, a young promising talent, in attack plus Steven Gerrard in the middle of the park. They are all players we have to keep quiet.
“We always try to go there, play our game and put them under pressure," he concluded. "In recent years it has worked for us.”
You sense Liverpool (a) last season will figure prominently in Wenger’s team talk on Sunday.
Liverpool: Cole (hamstring), Lucas (thigh).
Arsenal: Szczesny (rib – doubt), Rosicky (tendon), Sagna (leg), Frimpong (knee), Wilshere (ankle).
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