Liverpool face another huge test of their Premier League title credentials, as they travel to the Emirates Stadium on Saturday for the late kickoff, to face a buoyant Arsenal, who are unbeaten since losing their opening two Premier League matches of the season. Unai Emery’s men saw an 11-game winning run halted last weekend, as they were held to a 2-2 draw by Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, but they came back to winning ways with a 2-1 victory over Blackpool in the League Cup.
The Gunners have injury problems, especially in defence. Both Nacho Monreal and Sead Kolasinac are likely to miss out, while Hector Bellerin faces a late fitness test. Midfielder Matteo Guendouzi is suspended as well, having been sent off in the cup game against Blackpool.
For the Reds, Jordan Henderson and Naby Keita are likely to miss out again, while it will be interesting to see which one of James Milner, Xherdan Shaqiri and Daniel Sturridge is Klopp’s preferred option for such a big game.
Here are some key individual battles that could decide the outcome of the game.
SHKODRAN MUSTAFI V ROBERTO FIRMINO
What more can be said about Firmino that hasn’t yet been said about him? He contributes in a most different way from most other strikers, but he contributes in a way that makes him the fulcrum of this team, the focal point which decides how the team plays.
He hasn’t been at his absolute best so far this season, but he does love facing up against Arsenal. He’s scored in each of the last three meetings against the Gunners and will be looking to continue that form at the Emirates on Saturday evening.
Mustafi himself has had a shaky last few weeks, and that has shown in the clean sheets, or lack thereof, that Arsenal have kept. He has been uncertain with the ball at his feet, suspect in the air, and his leadership, in the absence of Sokratis Papasthatopoulos, has been questioned by many an Arsenal fan.
The Greek will be back for the game on Saturday and will be expected to take over the leadership mantle from Mustafi. But the German really has got to step up his game, because he can be assured that he will not get a moment’s peace from Firmino, and with enough rest between the two games for Liverpool, there is no excuse for Firmino to not be at the fullest intensity.
Mo Salah will, no doubt, be a threat to Arsenal, but Firmino will be a lot more crucial in not allowing them to build from the back, which will be crucial for Arsenal, which they seem to have enjoyed doing under Emery.
MESUT OZIL V FABINHO
With skipper Jordan Henderson likely to be ruled out, Fabinho is the likeliest option to get another start in midfield for the Reds. He has been mighty impressive in his last two starts, being a steady presence while breaking up play, and with fabulous passing through the lines in midfield.
But with all due respect to Red Star Belgrade and Cardiff, this is a completely different level of opponents for Liverpool to deal with, and the Brazilian’s first real big test in his Liverpool career.
Ozil himself has been blowing hot and cold this season. That is summed up in just Arsenal’s last two league games. Two weeks ago, he put in a memorable performance against Leicester, pulling the strings in midfield and being the creative force we know him to be.
But last week against Crystal Palace, he was once again a peripheral figure and there was the all-too-familiar sight of him moaning at something that wasn’t right around him. He has the ability to grab the game by the scruff of the neck and will pose an obvious threat to the Reds.
It is important that Fabinho and Gini Wijnaldum do the dirty work that is expected of them because this Arsenal attack can be lethal if allowed to flourish. Ozil, in particular, could be taken out of the game if the Reds are brave enough to physically impose their superiority on him.
ALEXANDRE LACAZETTE v VIRGIL VAN DIJK
Lacazette has been in fantastic form over the last few weeks for Arsenal, striking a lethal combination with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The duo have taken the goalscoring burden off each other, and have complemented each other wonderfully well.
Van Dijk has been the best defender in the league, and as far as tests go, they don’t come tougher than this at this particular instance. Since their opening day defeat to Manchester City, Arsenal have a 100% win record at the Emirates, and much of it has been down to the stellar work of their attackers. Once Emery found a way to play Lacazette and Aubameyang together, Arsenal have terrorised teams and played some sumptuous football.
It is a very likely scenario that Dejan Lovren will come into the side to partner the big Dutchman, with Joe Gomez being moved out to right-back. In that scenario, it will be important for Van Dijk to ensure that Lacazette’s movement is controlled on his side, and trust Lovren and Gomez to win their battle against Aubameyang, who is likely to again start on the left wing for Arsenal.
A critical weapon for the Gunners in attack has been to overload one flank before hitting a quick switch to the other side, therefore it is important that Van Dijk doesn’t get sucked into the Liverpool right and the battle with Aubameyag, and stays in control of Lacazette, who is likely to veer more to the right.