<
>

Arsenal trip is an absolute must-win for Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers

play
Wright urges Arsenal to sign Sterling (1:08)

Former Arsenal striker Ian Wright has urged his old manager Arsene Wenger to go all out and sign Liverpool's Raheem Sterling, ahead of the team's crucial Premier League meeting on Saturday. (1:08)

Liverpool are cornered tigers in the race for a Champions League place. They travel to Arsenal on Saturday for a vital game depleted by injury and suspension for what looks like a must-win match.

They face an Arsenal team that has been in the sort of form that wins championships with nine wins in the past 10 matches. They have set an Emirates Stadium record of eight league wins on the bounce at home.

The Gunners must be heavy favourites this weekend, especially with Olivier Giroud grabbing nine goals in his past nine matches and putting a coat of gloss paint on his reputation.

Despite their arrogant and complacent display in losing at home to Monaco in the Champions League, Arsenal have been playing some sizzling football. The return of Aaron Ramsey from injury has boosted the Gunners, and Santi Cazorla is a tireless creator, while Mesut Ozil is looking fitter and sharper despite the bizarre episode in which he reported ill for the trip to Newcastle yet was seen in a German nightclub that very same evening.

Arsenal's only slight concern is that Alexis Sanchez's form has dipped a little, with only one goal in his past 12 matches.

Meanwhile, Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers must plot a successful strategy without the services of his key defender Martin Skrtel, who starts a three-game suspension. Indeed, his absence might be felt more keenly than that of the also banned Steven Gerrard, who might not have made the starting lineup anyway.

Then there is the muscle tear that has been troubling Daniel Sturridge and the club's clumsily handled impasse over whether Raheem Sterling will sign a new £100,000-a-week "treble-your-money" contract. Sterling went public this week insisting he was no "money-grabber," saying he was interested only in winning trophies. His apparent reluctance to sign any new deal can only mean he is not sure Liverpool are equipped to win things.

Either that, or Sterling wants to see what reinforcements are signed to make Rodgers' team genuine challengers next season. In any event, his contract runs to 2017 and his attempted charm offensive in giving a BBC interview without the club's permission is looking naive.

If Sturridge is ruled out for Saturday's game, it is possible that Sterling might be asked to play at the point of the attack. It is hard to imagine the manager opting for the out-of-favour Rickie Lambert or Mario Balotelli for such a big game.

More likely is a recall for the fit-again Lucas to stiffen up the central midfield alongside Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen, so matching Arsenal's array of playmakers in that key area.

Of course, this season Liverpool have been playing catch-up after some laboured displays before Christmas that left them way off the pace. Credit to Rodgers. He tweaked his tactics to get around the absence of Sturridge and made Liverpool look a passable imitation of last season's vibrant runners-up.

But the home defeat by a resurgent Manchester United has left Liverpool five points adrift of the top four with matches running out. There is no margin for error now, starting on Saturday.

After a magnificent 13-game unbeaten run in the Premier League, there is just a feeling that Liverpool have gone off the boil a little in the past three games: a goalless FA Cup tie against Blackburn, a slightly lucky win at Swansea and the loss to United.

This is also a huge game for Dejan Lovren, who will presumably deputise for Skrtel -- that is, if Lovren is passed fit having pulled out of the most recent Croatia squad. He and his colleagues have the job of continuing a remarkable run of six consecutive clean sheets away from home dating back to Dec. 14.

In normal circumstances, Rodgers would be satisfied with a draw from such a tough fixture, hoping to mop up in the less demanding games that follow. But the mathematics now dictate that Liverpool must try to bridge that five-point gap by going for the win. That might make it quite a spectacle against an Arsenal side who know how to play only one way -- attack.

The smart money says Arsenal, despite their recent inability to win at home against the heavy hitters of the Premier League, will win. Liverpool must defend and pass well and hope for a moment of inspiration from Philippe Coutinho or young Mr. Sterling.

How ironic if Sterling were to prove the match winner in this of all weeks.