Arsenal’s Friday night meeting with Liverpool could have a huge bearing on the battle for a top four spot, and it comes at a critical time for both teams.
The hosts can move ahead of Jürgen Klopp’s team with a victory, but they come into the game with just one win and three points in their last four games. Liverpool, meanwhile, come into the game unbeaten in nine, but with many fans feeling they should be more than one point clear of their rivals.
It hasn’t always been this way, of course. For much of the last decade, both clubs have been regular fixtures in the top four and occasionally fighting for higher honours, but 2013-14 was the last time the pair achieved the feat together.
Indeed, back in 2008, not only were the two clubs on course for the Champions League places, but they were going head-to-head in the knockout stages of that same competition.
In the nine-and-a-half years since, most of the players involved have either left the Premier League or retired altogether. Just three members of the matchday squads are still playing Premier League football, and only one of those three is still at the same club.
However, that player made a contribution in that game which – as well as almost proving critical on the night – demonstrated the kind of ability his team has arguably been lacking over the last few weeks.
The meeting could have come at a better time for Liverpool, but not much better.
They might have made the previous season’s final, but they were close to not even making it out of their group, needing victory in their last four games to progress.
Domestically, however, they recovered from a mid-season blip to go into their quarter-final with six wins from seven plus home and away wins over Inter in the last 16 of the Champions League.
It was almost the mirror image of Arsenal’s path, right down to the Gunners’ victory over the other Milan side in the previous round: Arsenal had flown through their group with three wins from their first three games, but their run of six wins from seven had ended before their return to European action.
Liverpool might have trailed Arsenal in the league, but the north Londoners’ domestic form ahead of that quarter-final amounted to one win in six, and that only came courtesy of a late J’Loyd Samuel own goal at Bolton.
The first leg ended 1-1 at the Emirates Stadium but any sniff of an away goal advantage was eliminated when Abou Diaby struck early at Anfield, before a Sami Hyypiä equaliser effectively left the game as a 45-minute shootout.
Fernando Torres had put Liverpool in front midway through the second half, and Arsenal responded by introducing Theo Walcott in a move which ever so nearly paid dividend.
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A player’s popularity with his fanbase can often come down not just to the number of goals he scores, but the size of those goals.
As an example, Jesse Lingard’s status among the Old Trafford faithful has been boosted no end by being seen as a clutch player, scoring the winner in the 2016 FA Cup final and adding big strikes in the win against Southampton in last year’s League Cup final and in the recent league victory at Arsenal
Back in the 2007-08 season, Theo Walcott was ever so close to contributions on a similar scale not once but twice, only for events at the other end of the pitch to render them meaningless. There are parallels with Liverpool’s Lucas, who was denied a winner in his first Merseyside Derby by a goal-line handball, but Walcott has felt it even more keenly as an attacking player.
Walcott’s first Arsenal goal came in the 2007 League Cup final, giving his team an early lead. It could have been a watershed moment had Didier Drogba not turned things around with a brace, his second goal arriving in the last 10 minutes.
His first league goals for the club would arrive the following February, both in the space of five minutes against Birmingham City. The game had begun with a sickening injury to teammate Eduardo, so for Walcott to emerge from his teammate’s shadow and hand his team a come-from-behind victory would have been huge.
Then, as the clock ticked past 90, Stuart Parnaby went down in the box, James McFadden scored the equalising penalty, William Gallas lost his shit and Arsenal embarked on what would end up being a run of one win in eight to cost them a shot at the title.
The third such occasion, as you’ve probably figured out if you didn’t already know, came in that second half at Anfield. Emmanuel Adebayor might have got the final touch, but it was – to all intents and purposes – a Walcott goal.
That Adebayor finish, six minutes from time, gave Arsenal the lead on away goals.
Bear in mind this was a Liverpool team who had been ruthless defensively, winning their four previous home games with only this stunning Marek Matějovský strike finding a way past Pepe Reina.
Liverpool’s back line were stingy at the best of times, and this was the best of times. Walcott ripping them all to shreds looks all the more impressive.
To take multiple defenders out of the game twice in the same run with a combination of pace and close-control is something you’d expect of the world’s best, not of a 19-year-old still making his mark and still waiting for his first competitive international appearance.
Had Arsenal held on against Chelsea, we would have been talking about The Moment Theo Walcott Arrived.
Had they clung to victory at Birmingham, Theo Walcott would have been The Here And Now For Arsenal.
Had they lasted just six more minutes at Anfield, the conversation would have turned to Theo Walcott And His Ability To Shine On The Biggest Stage Of Them All.
But they didn’t, and we weren’t, and he wasn’t. Steven Gerrard scored a penalty, Ryan Babel struck a fourth Liverpool goal in stoppage time, and Walcott was left condemned to a career of false dawns, as if he’d decided to lean into his own anti-hype.
He has achieved plenty since, but rarely at a stage as huge as this. His hat-trick against Newcastle in 2013 was impressive but inconsequential, while his contribution to a memorable Champions League comeback was rendered null and void by a Lionel Messi masterclass in the return leg.
Big goals are only big goals when your teammates help them cling on to that status.
Walcott has barely featured this season, through a combination of injury and selection preferences, and has been linked with a move away from north London in January.
Now back in training, he could be fit in time to make only his fourth league appearance of the season against Liverpool on Friday night, and his direct approach could be what’s needed to break through the Reds’ defence.
They have dropped points against Newcastle and Everton, games in which they created plenty of chances themselves but were undone by one-off moments from opposition forward, while they suffered their two defeats after struggling to deal with pacey attackers Son Heung-min and Gabriel Jesus.
However, when Walcott has been fit this season he has been unfancied, and there’s a sense that the latest incarnation is well adrift of his younger self. The Walcott of 2008 or 2010 could make a difference, but is there the same trust in the Walcott of 2017?
Since that Champions League game, he has scored just twice against Liverpool – an equaliser in a 2013 league game and the opener in last season’s opening-day league defeat.
Friday’s game could offer him a final chance to vanquish those ghosts, and the 2008 Walcott could surely do some damage, but could the 2017 version do the same?
By Tom Victor
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