Real football is back at last and, from an Arsenal perspective, it returns with a fascinating fixture that could prove to be a barometer for the fortunes of two teams.
Last season Liverpool were truly outstanding champions, romping home as easily as Usain Bolt in a sprint race against John Moss, Phil Dowd and Steve Bruce.
This season, however, their title defence has been poor. So poor in fact that they’re only two places and four points above us in the league table – and you don’t need me to tell you what a disappointing campaign we’ve had.
So they visit the Emirates for an 8pm kick-off tonight on the back of six defeats in their last eight games, but with the international break having given them the opportunity for a rethink and reset.
As for us, we went into the break after a very strange game against West Ham: a game in which we played as badly as we have all season for the first 35 minutes, then played arguably our best footy of the season for the remaining hour.
Taking all this into account, this is a really tough fixture to call. If we are at our best you’d fancy us to claim all three points against a demoralised ‘Pool. On the other hand we know that their players are capable of way more than they have been showing in recent performances. If they choose tonight to get their mojo back we could be in for a bumpy ride.
A few days ago, in a Post about how we would do in our remaining nine fixtures, I put this game down as a draw. However, no result would surprise me in this one: it could equally be a comfortable Arsenal win or we could get thrashed or it could be a tight game decided by the odd goal.
Certainly at kick-off time I shall be steeped in the optimism that I always feel before any game.
If we can pick up from where we left off in our fightback against West Ham (with great attacking movement, incisive passing and dynamic finishing) we could get a glimpse of a truly competitive Arsenal side that will trouble the top four next season.
However, if we trip over own feet again with stupid mistakes or carelessness and lack of concentration then it will be further evidence that our character flaws are not going away any time soon.
Team selection is also tricky to predict after a two-week round of internationals and with most of our key players having flown to various parts of the globe.
The African players have put in the most miles, which may place a question mark over whether Pepe, Partey, Aubameyang and Elneny will be considered fit and rested enough to start.
Of the Europeans, Tierney played a lot of minutes to very good effect for Scotland and Odegaard played almost two and a half games for Norway (the knock he’d picked up in the first of those fixtures fortunately turned out to be minor). Xhaka also contributed significantly to Switzerland’s cause and was outstanding, by all accounts.
As far as I know, none of our South Americans travelled.
Liverpool play a high line in defence, so the temptation will be to put out a speedy forward line against them and that may well mean Aubameyang down the middle.
If that’s the case I would like to see Saka and Smith Rowe played at right and left attacking midfield respectively, but there are fitness question marks over both players (they were both withdrawn from the England international squads – senior and under 21 – during the break).
I’m going to go with the optimistic outlook that they’ll be fit. If Smith Rowe is not available then I would love to see Martinelli on the left, but Mikel Arteta will almost certainly start with Willian (unfortunately). Meanwhile if Saka is out it should be a no-brainer to put Pepe in.
Arguably the Europa League game against Slavia Prague on Thursday evening is a more important fixture for us, but we’re at home in that game and have five full days to recover and prepare so it should not influence selection for tonight.
Here’s my predicted line-up:
Cedric – Luiz – Gabriel – Tierney
Xhaka – Partey
Saka – Odegaard – Smith Rowe
Anyway, the main thing is that real football is back and life can return to being lived around the Arsenal fixture calendar.
After two weeks of uninteresting international games I feel like a man who was lost in the Sahara and has just been offered a glass of water. Let’s hope it tastes sweet at 10pm tonight.