Saturday afternoon (or morning here in the US), Arsenal take on Liverpool at the Emirates in a clash of first vs. (joint) second in the table. In a dramatic departure from the recent norm, I was able to (virtually) sit down with Noel of the Liverpool Offside blog and ask him three questions about this weekend's matchup. I'm as stunned as you are that this feature is actually happening again, so let's get right to it before it turns out to be a cruel joke!
TSF: Many people (mea culpa: myself included) did not think Liverpool would mount a serious challenge this season, and yet here we are, almost a quarter of the way through the season, and Liverpool sit joint second. Is the improvement from last season attributable to Brendan Rodgers having more time with his squad, or was it a case of the new summer signings making a huge difference?
Noel: To be fair, if you'd suggested to most Liverpool fans at the start of the season there was a chance of the club going top of the table a quarter of the way through, you would have mostly been met with skeptically raised eyebrows. The goal in most quarters was keeping the top four within reach until January and trying to bring in the marquee signing the club repeatedly missed out on over the summer-Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Diego Costa, Willian-in the hopes of a strong finish and sneaking into a Champions League berth.
A bit of good fortune on the last day of the season and stealing fourth may still be the most likely route to the kind of result all would deem a successful season, but nobody's going to complain about having started stronger than expected. Much of that is simply down to grinding out results against sides further down the table, which is something Liverpool has often struggled to do in the past. As such, a lot of the credit likely does have to go to Rodgers, though there have still been far too many second half let-offs for anybody's liking.
What credit doesn't go to Rodgers-or at least that doesn't go to him directly-has to be given to Simon Mignolet. As much as most Liverpool fans appreciate all that Pepe Reina did for the club, that he has struggled mightily since Rafa Benitez' final season isn't something that can be glossed over, and it's a good bet the club would have three fewer wins and six or so fewer points at this stage were it not for Mignolet's shot stopping abilities.
TSF: Unfortunately, any 2013 conversation between Liverpool supporters and Arsenal supporters must, by international law, include the words "Luis Suarez". So, Luis Suarez. Will he stay past January? Is he making all the right noises now, or is he unsettled?
Noel: He's making all the right noises now, but then he was making all the right noises through the end of last season before heading off with Uruguay and telling the world how much he'd love to play for Madrid. And to be brutally honest, all that most Liverpool fans care about at this stage is if he's scoring goals-and the type of player Suarez is, in a World Cup year, nobody expects him to pull a Tevez. The emotional investment in the player is gone for many, but he's still one of the top strikers in the world and he's scoring goals. That's enough.
As for later, Liverpool fans find themselves in the quite ridiculous position of having full faith in the owners to handle anything Suarez does in a manner that best serves the club. His contract runs through the summer of 2018 and Fenway Sports Group have convincingly backed up statements he's not for sale to another Premier League side at any price, which all adds up to a kind of happy indifference when it comes to Suarez' future. It's an oddly relaxed place to be in concerning a player who's usually more madhouse than siesta.
In short, if Liverpool make the Champions League and he sticks around, great. If Madrid offer Bale money in January, then that's good, too. And in the meantime, he's fun to watch.
TSF: Finish this sentence as if you were an opposing coach: "Team, if we want to beat Liverpool today, we absolutely must (blank)."
Noel: ...score more goals than they do.
Many thanks to Noel and to Liverpool Offside for their time.