Arsenal and Liverpool are set to do battle as the race for a top-four finish reaches one of the most important points of the season. Only three points and seven goals separate the two great rivals as they chase down Tottenham Hotspur who are currently holding onto fourth by the skin of their teeth.
With just 15 games to go this season Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool have finally made the move their fans have been hoping for since the start of the season. The Reds have fought their way into the mix for a much coveted place in the Champions League and now Arsenal stand in their way.
While Liverpool are now playing along the lines of previous expectation the same can now be said of Arsenal. Having endured an inconsistent season at best, the Gunners have now only lost two of their last 12 games.
As the match approaches it really is taking on a cup final feel for both teams and neither can afford to lose ground on Spurs and Everton who lie above them in the table.
Here, Bleacher Report makes six brave predictions for what could be the pivotal moment in Arsenal's and Liverpool's season.
Liverpool's defeat to Oldham Athletic in the fourth round of the FA Cup hit Brendan Rodgers hard.
In the aftermath of the historic loss, it was the first time the Reds have lost to a team two leagues lower since 1959, he launched a scathing attack on the clubs younger players.
"I was bitterly disappointed with the young players as they had a chance to compete for a club that has to challenge for trophies," he said. "We lost our concentration and only had spells in the last 35 minutes when we were at the right level."
"The intensity of our game was nowhere near where it should be at the beginning. We gave the ball away too easily and were not strong enough physically."
From the very start of the season Rodgers would have targeted the FA Cup as perhaps the Reds' best chance of winning a trophy. Not only has the loss been hard to take, it is also a set-back in his overall plans for progression at the club.
This can be immediately seen in the above comments.
Liverpool now enter the next phase of their development under Rodgers. While his broadside was obviously intended for players like Andre Wisdom, Fabio Borini and Sebastián Coates, it will be deeply noted by more experienced players not looking for a verbal lashing.
With that in mind his psychological build-up for the Arsenal game actually started in during the Oldham Athletic press conference.
Rodgers knows that finishing fourth is probably beyond his team this season, but a final date in the Europa League and bettering last season's eighth placed finish is most definitely not.
Expect a far better performance by the Reds when they visit the Emirates.
Perhaps the biggest problem Liverpool will face will be their manager keeping his mind on the game rather than his players. Given Brendan Rodgers' sons recent appearance in court on extremely serious charges it would be understandable.
Liverpool and Arsenal both had differing results in the FA Cup fourth round, but one thing both managers will agree upon is their respective teams below par performances.
Like Liverpool, Arsenal struggled to break down their lower league opposition. But unlike Brendan Rodgers, who only had a waning Steven Gerrard and Stewart Downing to bring on, Arsene Wenger actually had players at the very peak of their powers to introduce.
Jack Wilshere's and Theo Walcott's late introductions helped stretch the pitch and ultimately win the game for Arsenal.
This vital win keeps the Gunners momentum going as the most important part of their season heats up.
Between now and St. Patrick's Day Arsenal play nine matches which will define their season.
First up is Liverpool (H) Jan. 30, then Stoke City (H) Feb. 2, Sunderland (A) Feb. 9, FC Bayern Munich (H) Feb 19, Aston Villa (H) Feb. 23, Tottenham Hotspur (A) Mar. 2, Everton (H) Mar. 9, FC Bayern Munich (A) Mar. 13, Swansea (A) Mar. 16.
Each match is crucial, but the games against Bayern Munich and Spurs really stand out.
Victory against Liverpool is ultra-important to carry on their recent good form heading into the first Bayern game on Feb. 9. That upcoming game could well be the cornerstone of their entire season as a vital North London Derby comes just 14 days later.
Before those games can be even considered they must beat Liverpool...
After three goals in three games following an adrenaline rush £12 million transfer from Chelsea, Daniel Sturridge was brought crashing back down to earth by Oldham Athletic.
Before Liverpool's trip to Boundary Park the 23-year-old Sturridge had done nothing but impress. His goals and overall performances gave Brendan Rodgers and the Reds' fans huge justification over the changes and progress the club are making this season.
His introduction even made Rodgers change from his much vaunted 4-2-3-1 system. Sturridge's integration to the Reds' first team saw them move to a more traditional 4-4-1-1 or 4-4-2 as Luis Suarez, Liverpool's top scorer with 21 goals from 31 matches, dropped slightly deeper to play a more creative role.
Unlike Arsenal's little-and-large combination of Giroud and Walcott, Suarez and Sturridge are both similar in stature and style. The ex-Chelsea and Manchester City man is, however, more direct than his Uruguayan counterpart who is equally far more adept in a deeper and more creative role.
On paper this duo have the tools to cause most teams problems but understanding of each other's play and the nuances that come with it will take months if not longer.
Liverpool's next two games against Arsenal and Manchester City may just be at the wrong time for both these players to shine. However, after these games are done with the Reds embark upon a highly favourable fixture list that realistically only throws up three tough games from their remaining 16.
This time next year we could be talking about this SAS partnership in the same glowing terms as the last SAS partnership.
Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton drove Blackburn Rovers to the Premier League title in 1995.
Could Suarez and Sturridge repeat that feat? Only time will tell.
Arsene Wenger gave the strongest indication possible after the Brighton win that Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott will be his first choice strike-force going forward.
The Arsenal boss said: “He could have played 20 years ago in England, 10 years ago and today, because he has everything you need to play centre-forward. Physical presence.
“Usually we go more for mobile players who are just on the move, but he gives us something different, and I believe with him and Theo Walcott we have a good partnership," Wenger said. “Without him (Giroud) up front it would have been difficult. It is coincidence that Giroud and Walcott were not at Bradford. We had a lot of the ball but we did not score.
“When he gets in the fighting mode he is difficult to handle. He is tall, strong, he is quicker than people think he is.”
Earlier this season the Frenchman experimented with a number of different formations and with different combinations of players playing off Giroud.
That all changed when Walcott returned to the contract negotiation table in late October and since then the English international has been in fine form. He has waded in with an impressive 17 goals from 29 appearances this season and at this moment in time he looks the perfect foil for Giroud.
The 6'4" signing from Montpellier has enjoyed a tough first season at Arsenal but is finally showing the potential that all Arsenal fans had hoped for. He has scored 14 goals from 34 games this term but has crucially bagged four goals in his last two games.
The Walcott-Giroud combination up front has meant a move to the left for Lukas Podolski and while the German forward is not ideal defensively he too is enjoying the most productive part of his season.
As Wenger finally comes to terms with his best team they have fired in 36 goals in their last 15 games. The biggest reason for this change in attacking fortunes is the form of Walcott, Podolski and Giroud.
They have the beating of a Liverpool defence that is not only slow but is physically weak too. In the combined powers of the Gunners' three main attacking threats they have every weapon needed to expose the Reds' frail back-line.
Midfield will be the key to this game.
Neither side are the quickest across centre-midfield so the game could become very congested if the two teams close each other down quickly.
For Arsenal, Mikel Arteta is not expected to return next week and having missed almost the entire month of January expect another deputizing appearance from Abou Diaby. His position at the base of the Gunners' midfield should provide enough foundation for the likes of Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla to move forward but they will have to be aware of the threat Liverpool carry on the break.
Even in his declining years Steven Gerrard is still a potent force. While the Liverpool legend does not get around the pitch like he used to, he has still contributed six goals and 11 assists from 23 Premier League matches.
He carries the only true goal-scoring threat the Reds have in midfield. If the Reds line up with four across midfield as expected, with Stewart Downing and possibly Jordan Henderson, on the flanks they will be hoping to catch the Gunners on the break.
Both back-lines, particularly the central partnerships, suffer from a lack of pace and it will be more than interesting to see how they cope with deep lying forwards and advanced midfielders.
In the end the game could come down to a straight shoot-out between England's old midfield general, Steven Gerrard, and his heir apparent, Jack Wilshere.
These two players will be more than keen to show each other that they have what it takes to be considered a real player.
There is no doubting that the Arsenal carry more goal-threats than Liverpool, but if Gerrard can dominate Wilshere they will be halfway to victory.
Game on. Legend versus future legend. It doesn't get bigger or better than this.
Arsenal and Liverpool's head-to-head reads as;
Arsenal won: 75
Liverpool won: 82
There has not been a 0-0 draw since the 1998-99 season where strangely enough both games ended scoreless.
Liverpool and Arsenal first met on Saturday Oct. 28 1893 with the Reds winning 5-0. Since then the two sides have met an astounding 212 times and only 18 fixtures have ended scoreless.
This season Liverpool have played 37 games and have only failed to score five times. One of those times was against Arsenal at Anfield in September. They have scored in each of their last 13 games.
Arsenal have failed to score in six from 35 games this term and have only failed to score once in their last 13 games and that was against Manchester City on Jan.13.
Statistics provided by www.soccerbase.com and www.premierleague.com.
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