Liverpool versus Arsenal conjures images of nerveless finishes and timeless brilliance with huge consequences. It is a fixture that has delivered rather more than tense battles for fourth place. The most famous title decider in English football history occurred at Anfield in 1989, determined by Michael Thomas in the 92nd minute for the Gunners.
Seven months ago, another clinical visitor from the capital effectively ended Liverpool's chances again. Andrey Arshavin scored an implausibly inspired quartet in a 4-4 draw when Rafa Benitez's side were embarked upon a thrilling but ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of Manchester United. That was in April. Now Liverpool have bowed out of a second title race in 2009. While Benitez is yet to publicly concede his side are not in contention, his captain is more forthright in his appraisal of Liverpool's plight. There may be an atmosphere of denial in the dugout at Anfield, but a grim realism has permeated on to the pitch.
In a self-lacerating analysis, Steven Gerrard admitted Liverpool's players should bear the blame for their predicament. One phrase - "we are responsible" - was uttered so frequently it appears to have become a mantra. He said: "At the beginning of the season, we had intentions of being in the title race from start to finish. Unfortunately we've had a bad start. It's alright looking at why it's happening; we need to put it right on the pitch. So it's down to myself and the rest of the boys to take responsibility and put that right."
Injuries are a factor, but Gerrard's is a voice of pragmatism as he repeats the age-old cliché. "The league never lies," he added. "It's not puzzling at all. You are in that position for a reason and it tells us that we haven't been good enough or consistent enough. All us Liverpool players have got to look at the league, roll our sleeves up and get this football club where it belongs and that is as far up the league as possible."
Arsenal, four points ahead of their hosts, may retain hope of topping the table but Gerrard has admitted Liverpool have had to downgrade their ambitions for the campaign. "We need to try to get back in these top-four positions as soon as possible," the 29-year-old explained. There is a unique obstacle in their path. Arsenal present a different challenge and, Gerrard believes, stopping them requires a high tempo and a commitment from the attacking players to form the first line of the defence.
He added: "Arsenal are one of the best teams in Europe at passing the ball very quickly, moving the ball about. We have to get about Arsenal, press them high up and force them into mistakes because if you stand off them and let them play, they will kill us." It adds to the significance of Gerrard's favoured sidekick. Fernando Torres's willingness to harry defenders could prevent Arsenal from settling into their rhythm. His potent finishing would be a welcome addition to a side who have only scored four times in their last four matches.
Torres, who played the last 25 minutes of Liverpool's 2-1 defeat to Fiorentina on Wednesday, has not started a game for more than five weeks because of a groin problem. Yet with the Spaniard available again and Alberto Aquilani finally making his first start in midweek, Liverpool's injury problems are abating. After a 14-game run that has only brought three wins, that represents a welcome respite. While striking difficulties have been a feature of their season, especially when Torres and Gerrard have been sidelined, now Arsenal find themselves so short of natural forwards that Arshavin was deployed as the focal point of the attack against Stoke last Saturday.
But, as Arshavin showed in April, games such as this demand big performances from the major players. As Gerrard said: "It's no time for hiding." And come this evening, Anfield will be no place for hiding, either. firstname.lastname@example.org Liverpool v Arsenal, KO 8pm, Showsports 1 & 2