Gunners, Reds in crucial clash
LONDON, AP - Liverpool could slip out of realistic contention for Champions League qualification with a loss at Arsenal tomorrow as the Premier League returns from the international break with a significant match in the race for the top four.
A 2-1 home defeat to Manchester United ended Liverpool's 13-match unbeaten run in the league that had lifted last season's runners-up from mid-table to the brink of the top four.
It left Liverpool five points behind fourth-place United and six off third-place Arsenal, and there is no more room for error with just eight games left in the campaign.
Liverpool's season could be unravelling at just the wrong time, with captain Steven Gerrard suspended for three matches after his red card against United, top striker Daniel Sturridge injured again with a hip problem and the team's form dipping in its last three games before the international break.
And preparations for Saturday's game at Emirates Stadium were hardly helped by comments from their best young player, Raheem Sterling, who said Wednesday that he would hold off on discussing a new contract until the end of the season when he has a better idea about Liverpool's future. By saying his focus is on winning trophies over money - "I don't want to be perceived as a money-grabbing 20-year-old," he told the BBC - Sterling's future may have to lie somewhere else than Anfield.
While the two-week break for European Championship qualifiers and friendlies perhaps came at a good time for Liverpool, it probably frustrated United.
Impressive wins against Tottenham and Liverpool restored belief in Louis van Gaal's team, which could be eight points clear in fourth by the end of the 31st round of games if they beat Aston Villa at Old Trafford.
Chelsea take a six-point lead - plus a game in hand - into their home match against Stoke tomorrow and Manchester City visit Crystal Palace on Monday, by which the champions may have lost second place to Arsenal or United.
United's resurgence has coincided with Juan Mata's return to the team, with the Spain playmaker scoring twice against Liverpool and also impressing in the 3-0 win against Spurs.
Angel Di Maria, who cost United nearly $100 million last summer and captained Argentina in midweek, is finding it difficult to get back in the team after suspension because of Mata's form.
"I check the calendar and I see four big games for us in April: Aston Villa, Manchester City, Chelsea and Everton," Mata said. "All of them are big clubs and we want to show that we can beat them (and) getting close to our goal (of qualifying for the Champions League)."
United have won five games in a row. Villa's run of three straight wins under new manager Tim Sherwood was ended by Swansea last time out.
Sixth-place Tottenham are not quite out of the running for the top four and much will depend on the continued strong form of Harry Kane, who is on the brink of an impressive club milestone.
The 21-year-old Kane has 29 goals in all competitions in his breakthrough season and needs one more to become the first Tottenham player since Gary Lineker in 1991-92 to reach 30 goals in a single campaign.
It could come on Sunday against Burnley, who Spurs have beaten in the league and the FA Cup this season. Kane and Chelsea's Diego Costa are the league's top scorers with 19 goals each.
Tottenham are seventh, six points behind United.