Ahead of the toughest test of their impressive season so far, Liverpool are firing on as many cylinders as they’ve managed to for years.
Luis Suarez is in simply electric form, Daniel Sturridge’s goalscoring record continues to motor towards the truly outstanding and the energetic Reds are being driven on by the midfield force of the likes of Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson. Arsenal must feel like a mere smudge to wipe off the windscreen, not quite a roadblock standing in their way.
That isn’t strictly true, of course.
Saturday’s trip to the Emirates Stadium will represent a real barometer of just where this Liverpool team are, where they’re going and where they are likely to end up, and crucially for the Reds they’ll be taking that test with one of their star turns back in the fold.
After returning to training ahead of the West Bromwich Albion game last week, Philippe Coutinho is set to be involved in the squad for the trip to North London.
The presence of the gifted young Brazilian in a group already so buoyant following that superb 4-1 win over the Baggies adds yet another element to this titanic Premier League tussle, and it also gives Liverpool the sort of strength in depth that teams usually at the top of the table can take for granted.
Despite the fine starts to the season experienced by both teams who’ll run out of the tunnel at the Emirates on Saturday evening, it is still Chelsea and Manchester City who head the betting in the race to be crowned champions. A look at the makeup of their squads suggests why.
When the two clubs met on Sunday at Stamford Bridge, the likes of Juan Mata, Willian, David Luiz, Alvaro Negredo, Edin Dzeko and Jesus Navas had to be content with places amongst the substitutes. That is easily over £100m worth of talent.
The return of Coutinho to the Liverpool fold doesn’t quite make the Reds as strong as the vast wealth of quality on those blue benches, but it is clearly a step in the right direction.
We’ve seen how good Liverpool have been at times in the Brazilian’s absence, so how impressive will they be when he returns—when the 3-4-1-2 formation currently favoured by Brendan Rodgers features Coutinho, Suarez and Sturridge as its three most forward-thinking components?
Time will tell of course, but the initial thought with Coutinho’s return has to centre on the fact that Liverpool’s squad depth and strength improves with him.
If, as the excellent performance against West Brom should perhaps demand he does, Rodgers maintains an unchanged and winning team for the trip to Arsenal, then Coutinho’s return could see him confined to the bench where he’ll join the likes of Daniel Agger, Victor Moses and Joe Allen.
Okay, perhaps they aren’t quite at the level of Mata, Negredo and the like, but their presence indicates that Liverpool are as close to having that level of competition for places than they have been for a number of years.
Having that strength in depth is a key condition for any form of title challenge, and Liverpool might just be able to string one along during what appears to be the most open of campaigns.
When finally fully fit, Coutinho will of course be a key figure in Rodgers’ starting XI, but his fine displays on the pitch only make up one factor of his importance to this squad.
The Reds’ lack of European football and their elimination from the Capital One Cup means that this top-four tilt is all that they have until their FA Cup campaign begins in January, and so a relative lack of games might see some players become disillusioned.
The likes of Agger, Moses, Allen and indeed Coutinho will all get their chances, though, and when they do they’ll be coming into a team which suddenly look as though they believe that anything is possible.
The return of Liverpool’s tricky Brazilian is certainly something to be celebrated by the club’s supporters, fellow players and their manager, but the happiest of all will surely be Coutinho himself.
After all, who wouldn’t want to be a part of this?
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