Liverpool visit Arsenal for a potentially definitive Premier League encounter this weekend, as the runners and riders in the race for Champions League qualification embark upon the season’s final lap.
Having had their 13-game unbeaten run ended by Manchester United before the international break, Liverpool find themselves five points below the Champions League spots with only eight games of the season remaining.
Another defeat at the Emirates Stadium could see Liverpool cut adrift, but victory would take them to within three points of their opponents, revitalising their quest for a top-four finish.
“In terms of the objectives going into the game, it’s no different to what it was before Manchester United, but of course we had a disappointing result and performance last time out,” said Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers.
“We really want to make sure we perform and give ourselves a chance to get a positive result.”
Arsenal are seeking to record a seventh league win in succession — a feat they last achieved in March 2012 — and with Manchester City not in action until Monday, victory would lift Arsene Wenger’s side up to second place.
“It’s a big game and an opportunity for us to continue our run, which is what we want to do,” Wenger told his pre-match press conference.
“You know after the international break it’s always important that you come back and straight away you are on it.”
Mathieu Debuchy, Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby are all back in training for Arsenal after injury, while Wenger said Danny Welbeck had a “little chance” of playing after hurting his knee on England duty.
Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana could both feature for Liverpool despite withdrawing from the England squad through injury, but Steven Gerrard and Martin Skrtel are suspended.
Raheem Sterling, meanwhile, is likely to find more than a few camera lenses trained on him after he confirmed that he has rejected a new contract offer and described reported interest from Arsenal as “flattering”.
United, a point behind Arsenal in fourth place, will also have designs on supplanting City ahead of a home game with relegation-threatened Aston Villa.
Louis van Gaal’s side appear to have clicked, belatedly, after stylish victories over Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, but captain Wayne Rooney has warned that those wins will count for nought if they do not kick on.
– Chelsea close in –
Asked if the 2-1 success at Anfield had been a six-pointer, the England skipper replied: “Yes it was, but that means nothing if we don’t beat Aston Villa on Saturday.
“Obviously Arsenal play Liverpool as well, so if we can get the win against Villa, that will be an even better result than Liverpool was for us.”
Tottenham and Southampton, both six points below the top four, have opportunities to make up ground on at least one of the teams above them.
Southampton travel to Everton on Saturday, while Spurs visit third-bottom Burnley the following day.
Six points clear with a game in hand on all their pursuers, leaders Chelsea can take another step towards the title when they welcome Stoke City to Stamford Bridge.
Jose Mourinho’s side have stuttered in recent weeks, drawing successive home games against Burnley and Southampton, and midfielder Cesc Fabregas has urged his team-mates not to let their standards slip.
“Now we have to fight hard to win the Premier League and make this season a great year,” said the Spaniard.
“We still have the chance to win the double (league and League Cup), and for that reason we cannot relax for a moment.”
Defending champions City travel to in-form Crystal Palace on Monday, by which time they could conceivably be in fourth place in the table and nine points below Chelsea.
Bottom club Leicester City and second-bottom Queens Park Rangers are running out of time to close the gap on the teams above them, but third-bottom Burnley trail fourth-bottom Sunderland by a slender point.
Sunderland host Newcastle United in the Tyne-Wear derby, where the visitors will be looking to halt a chastening run of four consecutive defeats against their local rivals.
Saturday (1400 GMT unless otherwise stated):
Arsenal v Liverpool (1145 GMT), Chelsea v Stoke City (1630 GMT), Everton v Southampton, Leicester City v West Ham United, Manchester United v Aston Villa, Swansea City v Hull City, West Bromwich Albion v Queens Park Rangers
Burnley v Tottenham Hotspur (1230 GMT), Sunderland v Newcastle United (1500 GMT)
Monday (1900 GMT):
Crystal Palace v Manchester City