Soccer-Liverpool v Arsenal offers tasty start to festive feast

By Martyn Herman

LONDON (Reuters) – The Premier League will serve up its traditional festive feast of action but few games will be as eagerly-anticipated as first-placed Arsenal’s trip to second-placed Liverpool on Saturday.

As Christmas crackers go, this one takes some beating as the two sides that appear most likely to relieve a stuttering Manchester City of their crown face off at Anfield.

Twenty eight Premier League games will be crammed in 12 days starting with Aston Villa’s home clash with bottom club Sheffield United on Saturday when victory would send Villa top.

While Unai Emery’s side have emerged as genuine title contenders after 15 successive home league wins, Arsenal and Liverpool are still regarded as City’s biggest rivals.

Arsenal have not won a Premier League match at Anfield since 2012 and have endured a some heavy beatings in the interim period although they did draw 2-2 in April having led 2-0.

But Mikel Arteta’s side are on a run of five wins in six league games and there is mounting belief they can go one better than last season when they faded in a two-horse race with City.

Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp is under no illusion that Arsenal are a far more dangerous beast these days.

“We are going to play probably the strongest team in the Premier League, Arsenal,” he said after his side’s 5-1 defeat of West Ham United in the quarter-finals of the League Cup on Wednesday.

“They are really physically strong. They didn’t get worse with Declan (Rice) in the team, let me say it like that!”

England midfielder Rice, Arsenal’s record signing when he joined from West Ham in the summer, has given the Gunners another gear and is justifying the 100 million pounds fee with a string of commanding displays.

Liverpool were held to a 0-0 draw by Manchester United last weekend to miss out on top spot but have not lost at home in the league for more than a year, although Klopp on Wednesday warned the fans about complacency, accusing them of being too quiet.

“We need Anfield on Saturday,” Klopp said after the win over West Ham. “We need Anfield on their toes from the first second. If it’s too much football in December, I don’t know, sorry we have to play it as well. But if you are not in the right shape, give your ticket to somebody else.”

Saturday’s action gets under way with West Ham hosting Manchester United while later, fifth-placed Tottenham Hotspur host an Everton side who have won four successive games to climb out of the bottom three despite a 10-point deduction for breaches of the Premier League’s financial rules.

Premier League history will be made on Saturday when Rebecca Welch becomes the first female referee to take charge of a match after being handed Fulham’s home clash with Burnley.

While Burnley manager Vincent Kompany praised what he said was a milestone day for the game, his priority will be trying to get his 19th-placed team out of the relegation zone.

Nottingham Forest’s new manager Nuno Espirito-Santo, who replaced the popular Steve Cooper this week, will get his first taste of the size of his task as Forest host Bournemouth.

Third-from-bottom Luton Town, whose captain Tom Lockyer was released from hospital on Thursday after suffering cardiac arrest against Bournemouth last weekend, causing the game to be abandoned, take on Newcastle United on Saturday.

Chelsea face Wolverhampton Wanderers on Christmas Eve and after a brief Christmas Day respite, the Premier League continues with five games on Boxing Day, the pick of which sees Manchester United host Aston Villa.

(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar)