For all talk of mini-league between top six, final Uefa Champions League place may come down to private duel between old rivals, writes Richard Jolly
Arsenal v Liverpool: Klopp has Wenger's number as crucial tie could have bearing on Champions League spot
A film was released recently, a documentary recalling the most famous meeting between Arsenal and Liverpool.
As the title indicates, 89 harks back to 1989, the year when the league title was decided in stoppage time as the top two teams met and Michael Thomas, a future Liverpool player, scored the most famous goal in Arsenal’s history.
These clubs have met 223 times and, if they meet another 223, nothing as dramatically decisive will occur again. Yet recent clashes have contained a significance.
89 - official trailer
Rewind 16 months and on last season’s opening weekend, Liverpool won 4-3 at the Emirates Stadium, a blitz of four goals in 18 minutes highlighting their capacity to be devastating. Fast forward nine months and they pipped Arsenal to fourth place by one point.
Go back four months and Liverpool demolished Arsenal 4-0.
Now once again, they lead the Gunners by one point in the standings. For all the talk of a mini-league between the top six, the final Uefa Champions League place may come down to a private duel between old rivals.
If so, that bodes badly for Arsenal. They have not beaten Liverpool since Jurgen Klopp’s appointment. They have conceded 14 goals in four games, losing the last three.
All the available evidence suggests that they are unable to cope with the speed and cohesion of the German’s blueprint. If Arsenal were once known for the way their players interchanged positions fluently at high pace, that mantle may have passed to Liverpool now.
If they have made Arsenal look an anachronism - a disjointed, slower side shorn of new ideas - the reality of their proximity in the table suggests the gap is narrower than it has appeared in their meetings and that Arsenal prosper against other opponents.
Sides with similar records may be opposites in other respects. Klopp suggested that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose Arsenal career ended in humiliating style in August’s 4-0 reverse, has been liberated from the shadows of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil.
He did not use the phrase "star vehicle", but always objects to references to Liverpool’s "Fab Four" of Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho. Klopp thinks it is disrespectful to the rest of the collective.
In any case, Klopp rarely fields all four together. They scored all of the goals in the 7-0 evisceration of Spartak Moscow, but Mane, who has struck in each of his Reds appearances against Arsenal, may be on the bench on Friday night. The other three are in better form.
Because while August’s game was played to a backdrop of uncertainty about the future of pivotal players, Liverpool are benefiting from keeping Coutinho. It is harder to argue Arsenal have gained by retaining Alexis Sanchez, though he was brilliant when they beat Tottenham Hotspur, other rivals for fourth place.
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The sense is that Arsenal are in a limbo created by their two major talents.
Liverpool face a different sort of wait: to discover if their premier centre-back Joel Matip is fit to return to a defence that has been frugal of late but which conceded four goals at Spurs and five at Manchester City.
Arsenal’s defensive dilemmas are different and extend beyond questions about Shkodran Mustafi’s fitness.
Arsene Wenger has belatedly reverted to four at the back – they were one of a number of teams who found a back three a woefully inadequate way of dealing with Liverpool’s electric front three. But their lack of a specialist defensive midfielder was exposed at Anfield.
It has been the way of things over the past two years. Arsenal’s shortcomings have been highlighted by Liverpool.
Now they must hope recent history does not repeat itself as they get nostalgic over the more distant past.