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Unlikely title contenders Arsenal, Liverpool square off in north London

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Think back exactly two months from Saturday.

As of Sept. 2., both Arsenal and Liverpool had played a trio of Premier League matches to start the current campaign.

The Gunners, having opened their season with a 3-1 loss at home to Aston Villa, were under pressure to make a meaningful acquisition on the final day of the summer transfer period.

The Reds, despite a succession of 1-0 victories, were still without suspended striker Luis Suarez and were having to fend off interest in the Uruguayan from Paris Saint-German, Real Madrid and even Arsenal, which had tabled a £40,000,001 bid for the 26-year-old.

Now bring it back to the present.

The past 60 days has seen Arsenal smash its transfer record for Mesut Ozil, score in every Premier League match to date (the only club to do so) and climb to the top of the standings after nine matches.

They have also seen Aaron Ramsey develop into one of the best midfielders in the division and Per Mertesacker — so often maligned since his 2011 arrival in London — enjoy something of a renaissance at the age of 29.

Liverpool, meanwhile, has managed to keep hold of Suarez, who has repaid the club with six goals from four matches while forming one-half of the Premier League’s most lethal attacking partnership alongside Daniel Sturridge.

In the five matches in all competitions the two have started together so far this season, they’ve scored 10 goals and, given the impending return of Philippe Coutinho from injury, their effectiveness is only likely to increase.

It’s quite a time for the two sides to be facing one another, but Saturday afternoon the pair of unlikely title contenders will go head-to-head in north London with first place in the division up for grabs. (12:30 p.m., Sportsnet)

An improbable scenario two months ago, but an appropriate contest at the season’s quarter poll.

Take Ozil, for example.

Since arriving from Real Madrid, the German midfielder has scored twice in six matches, created 19 scoring opportunities (three of which turned out to be assists) and completed 86 per cent of his passes, all the while providing the sort of creative magic Arsenal had been lacking for years.

With the 25-year-old pulling the strings the whole side is suddenly more effective. Santi Cazorla is no longer the lone playmaker capable of making something from nothing; Olivier Giroud is getting quality service up front; Ramsey and Jack Wilshere are being allowed to mature at appropriate paces.

On the other side of the ball, Sturridge simply hasn’t stopped scoring.

Coming into Saturday’s match, the 24-year-old has tallied 14 times in his last 14 Premier League appearances going back to last season and his versatility has ensured the return of Suarez to the first team hasn’t diminished his production.

Quite the contrary.

The two seem to have a supernatural understanding in the goalmouth that has helped Liverpool score 12 goals in their last four matches — 10 of which have come from one or the other.

The remaining two have been scored by captain Steven Gerrard, who at 33 is playing some of the best football of his career. Through nine matches this term, he has generated 19 scoring chances, executed 13 interceptions and placed 60 per cent of his shots on target — many from distance.

With his career winding down he might never have as good a chance to win a Premier League title as this season, although there will be countless players, coaches and fans representing both sides, today, who will no doubt be thinking the same thing.

Arsenal and Liverpool were never expected to challenge for major honours in 2013-14 and both may still come up short when the trophies are handed out in the spring.

But they have already exceeded expectations, and for now that’s about as much as they could have hoped for.

Projected Arsenal XI: Szczesny; Sagna, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Gibbs; Ramsey, Arteta; Wilshere, Ozil, Cazorla; Giroud.

Projected Liverpool XI: Mignolet; Toure, Skrtel, Sakho; Johnson, Henderson, Lucas, Gerrard, Cissokho; Sturridge, Suarez.

Twitter @JerradPeters


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