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League Cup Preview: Arsenal - Liverpool

By Graham Lister

Wednesday, 28 October 2009, Kick-off
Emirates Stadium, London N5

Reversal of fortunes

Last weekend provided an object lesson in how football fortunes can fluctuate. Liverpool went into their home clash with Manchester United on a knife-edge. Four successive defeats - their worst run since 1987 - had the air thick with talk of a crisis. Manager Rafa Bentitez's transfer strategy, team selection, tactics and substitutions were all being questioned by pundits and fans alike, some even suggesting that his job could, or should, be in jeopardy.

Meanwhile Arsenal, with only an injury-time equaliser by AZ Alkmaar in the Champions League having denied them a seventh straight victory in all competitions, were widely expected to heap further misery on struggling West Ham United at the Boleyn Ground. Arsene Wenger, who turned 60 during the week, was being feted again for the style of his free-scoring young team.

Then, in the space of four engrossing hours on Sunday afternoon, the fickle footballing fates took a hand. First, a totally committed and passionately backed Liverpool side roared back into contention by out-thinking, out-muscling and out-playing their fierce rivals United, winning 2-0 and earning Benitez plaudits for pulling another rabbit out of the hat.

Then Arsenal, having established a comfortable two-goal margin against the Hammers, allowed their good work to be undone in the final 15 minutes and were forced to settle for one point in a 2-2 draw, when three had been theirs for the taking. Talk of the Gunners' soft underbelly, glass jaw and lack of a killer instinct resurfaced with a vengeance.

Wenger and Benitez have presumably long heeded the wisdom of Kipling's words, and learned to treat those two imposters - triumph and disaster - just the same; their task is to keep their heads while all around them are losing theirs and blaming it on them.

But while Sunday's results appear to have shifted the balance at the top end of English football yet again, however temporarily, it would be dangerous to draw further conclusions from the outcome of Wednesday's League Cup contest at the Emirates. Liverpool's trip to Fulham and Arsenal's staging of the north London derby on Saturday are likely to be more reliable indicators.

The reason, of course, is that Wenger's well-established policy is to use the League Cup as a stage on which his promising youngsters and fringe players can test themselves, while Benitez too is inclined to rest his first-choice players in this competition, though usually in a more pragmatic fashion than his French counterpart.   

It is therefore likely that the teams on show at the Emirates will bear little resemblance to those who'll start at the weekend. However, an unknown variable at this stage is whether Rafa will be so determined to build on that victory over United that he declines the opportunity to make wholesale changes and picks an experienced team that he thinks will have the beating of Arsenal's young guns. Another variable is that Wenger may be tempted to give senior players returning from injury a run-out at the expense of some of the kids.

Either way, a fascinating tie could be in the cards. These are two of the Premier League's major powers, whose Champions League commitments mean the League Cup is fourth on their list of priorities. That said, Liverpool are the competition's most successful club, having lifted the trophy no fewer than seven times (1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1995, 2001, 2003) and been beaten finalists on three other occasions (1978, 1987, 2005). Arsenal have won the Cup twice - in 1987 and 1993 - and lost in the final four times (1968, 1969, 1988, 2007).

There is a lengthy history of League Cup meetings between the two clubs, too. This is the tenth time the pair have been drawn together, and including replays they have played one another 13 times previously - including the 1987 final at Wembley when Arsenal came from behind to win 2-1 thanks to a brace from Charlie Nicholas. That was the first time ever that an Ian Rush goal did not lead to a Liverpool victory. Overall, though, the Reds are ahead of the Gunners by five wins to four, with four games having been drawn.

Their last meeting in this competition was arguably the most memorable. Having beaten Liverpool 3-1 on Merseyside in the FA Cup on 6 January 2007, Arsenal returned to Anfield three days later with a more experimental side and triumphed 6-3. Brazilian Julio Baptista became the first visiting player in 40 years to score four times in a game at Anfield, and also had a penalty saved by Jerzy Dudek.

Only three of the players who appeared on the pitch that night for Liverpool are still at the club - Steven Gerrard, Fabio Aurelio and substitute Jamie Carragher. Of the Arsenal line-up, eight are still at the Emirates: Manuel Almunia, Johan Djourou, Armand Traore, Theo Walcott, Alex Song, Cesc Fabregas, Denilson and sub Abou Diaby.

That 6-3 League Cup tie was, though, the last occasion on which Arsenal have beaten Liverpool. In seven subsequent meetings in all competitions, five have been drawn and Liverpool have won twice. On the other hand, Liverpool have not won in their last 11 visits to Arsenal. Their most recent success on Gunners' turf was a 1-0 win at Highbury in February 2000 when Titi Camara scored the decisive goal.
 
In this season's competition, Liverpool booked their place in the fourth round with a hard-fought 1-0 win over League One leaders Leeds United at Elland Road, David Ngog scoring the only goal midway through the second half.

A young Arsenal side beat Championship promotion challengers West Bromwich Albion 2-0 at the Emirates in round three, with goals from Sanchez Watt and Carlos Vela. Only three of Wenger's squad that night were older than 19, and four of the starting XI had played against (and beaten) Liverpool in last season's FA Youth Cup Final - midfielders Jack Wilshere and Francis Coquelin, and strikers Sanchez Watt and Gilles Sunu.

One peculiar statistic that Liverpool will hope is not an omen is the fact that, in every season since Rafa Benitez became their manager, Liverpool's League Cup campaign has been ended by a team from London. They lost to Chelsea in the Final in 2004-05 and since then have gone out to Crystal Palace, Arsenal, Chelsea (again) and Tottenham (last season).
 
FORM GUIDE

Arsenal


25 Oct (Premier League) v West Ham United (A) DREW 2-2
20 Oct (Champions League) v AZ Alkmaar (A) DREW 1-1
17 Oct (Premier League) v Birmingham City (H) WON 3-1
04 Oct (Premier League) v Blackburn Rovers (H) WON 6-2
29 Sept (Champions League) v Olympiakos (H) WON 2-0

Liverpool


25 Oct (Premier League) v Man Utd (H) WON 2-0
20 Oct (Champions League) v Lyon (H) LOST 1-2
17 Oct (Premier League) v Sunderland (A) LOST 0-1
04 Oct (Premier League) v Chelsea (A) LOST 0-2
29 Sept (Champions League) v Fiorentina (A) LOST 0-2

TEAM NEWS

Arsenal


Arsene Wenger welcomes back French midfielder Samir Nasri from a broken leg, and Polish goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski from knee surgery, for their first appearances of the season. However, highly-rated young England Under-21 midfielder Jack Wilshere, 17, is ruled out with an ankle injury.

Full-back Armand Traore is also out with a groin problem, and Wenger will be fielding a relatively experienced side by giving strikers Eduardo (thigh) and Nicklas Bendtner (groin) starts after both missed recent games. Tomas Rosicky, Denilson, Theo Walcott and Johan Djourou are still unavailable.

The likes of Sanchez Watt, Gilles Sunu, Mark Randall, Francis Coquelin, Nacer Barzite and Kieran Gibbs could well be involved, as could more experienced players such as Aaaron Ramsey, Carlos Vela, Mikael Silvestre and Philippe Senderos.

Last starting XI (v West Ham): Mannone, Sagna, Gallas, Vermaelen, Clichy, Song, Fabregas, Diaby (Eduardo 88), Eboue (Bendtner 82), Arshavin, Van Persie.
Subs not used: Almunia, Silvestre, Gibbs, Nasri, Ramsey.

Last starting XI in Carling Cup (v West Bromwich Albion): Szczesny, Senderos, Silvestre, Gibbs, Traore (Barazite 69), Gilbert, Ramsey, Wilshere, Coquelin (Randall 58), Sunu (Vela 58), Watt.
Subs not used: Shea, Bartley, Eastmond, Frimpong.

Liverpool

Javier Mascherano will miss out after being sent off in the 2-0 win over Manchester United at the weekend. His one-match suspension was the result of a late challenge on Edwin van der Sar for which he picked up a second yellow card.
 
Sunday's goalscoring hero Fernando Torres is unlikely to start, having played against United while only 80 per cent fit, and having felt pain when striking the ball. Fellow scorer David Ngog is a likely starter, but winger Albert Riera is still sidelined with a hamstring injury.

However, the good news for Liverpool fans is that Alberto Aquilani could make his debut after being named in the squad. The 25-year-old could be utilised as a second-half substitute.
 
Benitez told Liverpool's official website: "He will be with us. He is improving his fitness, so he's in the squad. He cannot start at this moment but he will be there and maybe we can give him some minutes. If it's possible we will try to use him."
 
Last starting XI (v Man Utd): Reina, Johnson, Agger, Aurelio, Insua, Carragher, Benayoun (Skrtel 90+2), Mascherano, Lucas, Torres (Ngog 80), Kuyt.
Subs not used: Cavalieri, Degen, Spearing, Voronin, Babel.

Last starting XI in Carling Cup (v Leeds Utd):
Cavalieri, Aurelio, Kyrgiakos, Carragher, Degen (Johnson 71), Dossena, Riera, Mascherano, Spearing, Babel (Skrtel 90), Ngog (Gerrard 78).
Subs not used: Reina, Plessis, Torres, Voronin.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Arsenal

Samir Nasri
sustained a fractured fibula during a training session at Arsenal's pre-season training camp in Austria in July, and Gunners fans will be delighted to see him back in first-team action after being impressed by the Frenchman's bright first season at the Emirates. Nasri scored on his Arsenal debut and hit two memorable goals in a 2-1 home win over champions Manchester United. He finished the season with seven goals to his name from 41 appearances in all competitions, plus three as a substitute, and won a host of new admirers.

Liverpool

Signed from Roma in July as a replacement for Xabi Alonso, who moved to Real Madrid, Alberto Aquilani's first appearance in the Liverpool first-team has been eagerly awaited. Benitez believes the Italy international, who has been sidelined by a persistent ankle injury, will add a new dimension to the Reds' midfield. "We can see in every training session that he has quality, game intelligence and good movements,"  the Spaniard told the club's official website. "He is a different kind of player for us." A fit Aquilani pulling the strings will help banish the criticism that Alonso's departure has seriously weakened Liverpool this season.

PREDICTION


It is difficult to second guess either manager's team selection for this match, and the outcome will obviously be determined by the personnel on the pitch. However, Arsenal have a 100 per cent home record this season, winning all seven of their matches at the Emirates. Liverpool have not won away from home since their victory at Leeds in the previous round, or scored an away goal since that match at Elland Road. But they will be brimming with confidence after beating Manchester United, while Arsenal will be determined to prove that they have learned from conceding late goals in their last two matches. It is set up to be a finely balanced tie, and could end all-square, with the winner to be decided in a fateful penalty shoot-out.

Arsenal 2-2 Liverpool  (winners going through on penalties)