There are enough questions and contradictions surrounding Arsenal's visit to Liverpool today to make an already intriguing fixture the most compulsive viewing of the Premier League season to date.
With autumn leaves fallen and the clocks turned back, both teams are still unbeaten; but after avoiding other members of the big four, Arsène Wenger's unexpectedly successful young side must now take on two of them in succession, with Manchester United due at the Emirates on Saturday. After a 7-0 Champions' League victory in midweek, their fans believe they have found nirvana, if not football heaven; yet having gained new togetherness from the departure of Thierry Henry, Arsenal find the most experienced player in the squad threatening what feels like team spirit.
At least nobody of sane disposition is phoning or texting to demand that the manager is sacked. That is the fate of Rafa Benitez, nine League games unbeaten but in danger of failing to reach his third Champions' League final in four seasons. Among the Spaniard's faults, his many critics say, are refusing to start with the same team for two games running and declining to start Peter Crouch at all – Crouch, whose hat-trick destroyed Arsenal last spring, ultimately costing them third place in the table.
"It was a world-class performance last year against us," Wenger admitted of the gangling striker, who tormented this afternoon's central defensive pair, Kolo Touré and William Gallas. "They have a good opportunity to show it was an accident. I wouldn't be surprised if he played against us." Anfield would; Crouch may have appeared in eight of the club's 14 games this season but the majority have been as a substitute, often a surprisingly late one. The seven minutes granted to him to rescue Wednesday's game at Besiktas seemed particularly mean, all the more so when his first touch set up Liverpool's late goal.
"Every manager has a different way to do things and you have to respect that," Wenger said of his opposite number. "He will play the team he thinks will beat us." If now considered fit, Fernando Torres and Xabi Alonso would surely be included in it, for both were badly missed in Istanbul as Liverpool dropped to bottom place in their Champions' League group. If they are serious about winning a Premier League title at last, however, staying fourth would be a better option than rising to third and having to play in the Uefa Cup.
No such concerns for Arsenal, who should now qualify for the knockout stage with almost as much to spare as they had in the demolition of Slavia Prague. One small fly detected in the ointment on either side of that wonderfully smooth performance, however, was the demeanour of Jens Lehmann, forced to observe it from an unfamiliar position on the substitutes' bench. First-choice goalkeeper until committing a couple of howlers in the opening two League games, against Fulham and Blackburn, he has subsequently been unableto displace Manuel Almunia,and risks disrupting the new harmony of the dressing room post-Henry with his withering public comments.
Having a manager who speaks fluent German rendered his usual footballer's claim to have been mistranslated redundant. In a German television interview earlier in the week Lehmann used the word "demutigung" [humiliation] twice to describe his treatment by "my dear coach" Wenger, and said of his goalkeeping rival: "Almunia has not shown that he can win games". Speaking to Sunday newspaper reporters after the Slavia match he added: "If you fail to win games for your team, you don't have the consistency or the right to play for a big club. I made some mistakes at the beginning of the season but I saw Almunia making mistakes as well, so sometimes you don't know what the thoughts of the coach are. I went to see him [Wenger] four days ago but I can't say what was said. Sometimes I was happy and some parts I didn't like that much. It's a good challenge for me. I had my biggest successes after big disappointments."
Asked how many world-class goalkeepers there were at the club he suggested: "There are three world-class goalkeepers; the others have won, erm... [long pause]... I don't know." Wenger, who rarely ducks a question of any sort, would only say on Friday: "We'll speak about that internally. I don't think I'll add to the fire. It's common in Germany, these kind of statements." If the 37-year-old Lehmann is still not in the side by Christmas, his only chance of winning a place in Germany's European Championship team next summer will be to move, presumably in the January transfer window.
And where might Arsenal be by then? Still sitting pretty, or playing pretty football to less effect than at present? The increasingly mature midfielder Cesc Fabregas now believes it would be a disappointment not to win the Premier League. Great expectations, fuelled by an impressive Francophone back four; a midfield in which Fabregas has real support from the differing qualities of Aleksandr Hleb and Mathieu Flamini; and an attack flourishing even without the injured Robin van Persie, with Theo Walcott banishing doubts about his development in offering a thrilling glimpse of his potential as a striker.
Now judgement day is at hand, twice in seven days, after which another question to be asked might be how the youngsters take a first defeat. Wenger believes there would be nothing like the negative reaction that followed losing to United when one game short of an unbeaten half-century three years ago this week. "Should a defeat happen it will not be taken in the same way. After 49 games, nearly 18 months, the guys had been up on top of Everest and next they were down at sea level again. You have to say, 'Listen, my friends, now we climb up again'. This team? So far we have climbed a little hill."
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