London by Tom Williams (AFP)
Brendan Rodgers has challenged his Liverpool players to kick-start the club’s spluttering campaign against Stoke on Saturday.
Reds boss Rodgers has been forced to answer questions about his job security for the first time in his reign after Liverpool plummeted to 12th in the Premier League following successive defeats by Newcastle, Chelsea and Crystal Palace.
They also suffered a setback in the Champions League in midweek, conceding an 88th-minute equaliser to draw 2-2 at Ludogorets Razgrad, but can still secure a place in the knockout phase by beating Basel at home next month.
Rodgers is keeping calm while the flak flies and he remains hopeful Liverpool will get back on track if they can secure a morale-boosting victory at Anfield on Saturday.
“We are hoping our season has really begun the other night but it will only count if we take it into Saturday’s game,” Rodgers said.
“Everything has been hunky dory for 18 months but it is a different hand we have been dealt this year, a different deck of cards.
“I said to the players the other night what has gone before has gone.
“We got the result the other night: a good performance, we were competitive, the structure of the team was good and we will take it into a difficult game against Stoke.”
Like Liverpool, Arsenal have fallen out of title contention over recent weeks, with the Gunners now 15 points behind leaders Chelsea following consecutive losses.
Arsenal’s poor form has seen manager Arsene Wenger’s 18-year stewardship called into question as rarely before, amid concerns that a climate of tolerated under-achievement has infiltrated the club.
However, Wednesday’s 2-0 victory over Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League saw Arsenal reach the last 16 for the 15th consecutive season, boosting morale ahead of Saturday’s trip to West Bromwich Albion.
“We have to show character and that is what makes me really happy for the next few games, because we have to sharpen up in the Premier League as well,” said Arsenal’s German centre-back Per Mertesacker.
“Saturday is a good chance to show to everyone that we are still alive. We have to come back in the Premier League and that is the next target.”
Victory over Dortmund came at a cost, with Spanish midfielder Mikel Arteta joining a host of players on the sidelines after injuring his calf.
Jack Wilshere has been ruled out for three months after undergoing ankle surgery, but goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny should return from the hip injury he sustained in last Saturday’s 2-1 loss at home to Manchester United.
– Fabregas buoyant –
Second-place Southampton’s 1-1 draw at Aston Villa last Monday means that Chelsea’s advantage at the summit has swelled to six points ahead of their visit to 14th-place Sunderland.
Jose Mourinho’s side cruised into the Champions League last 16 with a breezy 5-0 win at Schalke on Tuesday and in-form midfielder Cesc Fabregas says their football is as enjoyable to create as it is to watch.
“We have a very young, talented team,” said the former Barcelona player, who has already contributed 10 goals to the Chelsea cause this term.
“The mood is great and hopefully it will grow as the season goes on because you know that for the next two months it’s going to be really, really tough — a lot of games.”
Southampton’s hold on second place faces a stiff test over the next fortnight, with successive games against Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United on their schedule.
Third-place City arrive at St Mary’s on Sunday, buoyed by a stunning 3-2 victory over Bayern Munich on Tuesday that breathed fresh life into their Champions League campaign.
United, meanwhile, have crept into fourth place, five points behind City, after their smash-and-grab victory at Arsenal last weekend.
Louis van Gaal’s side host Hull City on Saturday, when victory would enable the 20-time champions to register a third consecutive league victory for the first time since December 2013.