Football: Liverpool's defence stands tall ahead of Arsenal test

Liverpool's Brazilian midfielder Fabinho (centre) celebrates with team mates after scoring their fourth goal against Newcastle United on Dec 26, 2018.
Liverpool's Brazilian midfielder Fabinho (centre) celebrates with team mates after scoring their fourth goal against Newcastle United on Dec 26, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (REUTERS) - Liverpool's push for a first English title in 29 years faces another test when they host Arsenal on Saturday (Dec 29) but the evidence suggests their formidable defence could be their key to ending a frustrating wait for a championship in the Premier League era.

The roar that swept like wildfire around the ground when Manchester City's defeat to Leicester City was confirmed on Wednesday told its own story - Anfield really is beginning to believe.

For while Juergen Klopp's unbeaten Liverpool were easing to a 4-0 win over Newcastle United to bring the dream of that elusive 19th English title into sharper focus, champions City were suffering a second straight defeat in less than a week.

So, at halfway, the gap between Liverpool and City, who slipped to third spot, now stands at seven points - and a comparison between their defensive records offers one of the major reasons why.

For Liverpool, boosted by signings of exceptional centre back Virgil van Dijk and goalkeeper Alisson, have conceded just seven goals in 19 matches this season, 16 less than at the same stage last term.

City, in contrast, have shipped 15 goals and will arrive at Southampton on Sunday without a clean sheet in their previous nine games in all competitions.

Liverpool's attacking prowess has been long admired but full back Trent Alexander-Arnold points to how it now goes hand in hand with defensive stability at Anfield, where they have won eight of their nine league games, conceding just two goals.

"We have shown we're tough to beat and not only that, we're tough to score past. Not many teams come here and can score past us," the 20-year-old told the club website.

"We have kept a lot of clean sheets, especially at home. It's something we pride ourselves on as defenders and throughout the whole team.

"That's the foundation we've got to lay, then provide the balls for the attackers to go and do what they do best, scoring us goals."

Fifth-placed Arsenal were the last team to nick a point from Liverpool in a 1-1 draw at the Emirates last month, but Unai Emery's side have since lost their way, dropping seven points in their last three games on the road.

An error from Stephan Lichtsteiner cost Arsenal dearly as they were held to a frustrating 1-1 draw against Brighton and Hove Albion on Wednesday.

Arsenal were without four centre back options at the Amex Stadium and Emery will hope Nacho Monreal and Shkodran Mustafi could return for the weekend's clash.

CITY DEFENSIVE WOES

After conceding five goals in back-to-back defeats by Crystal Palace and Leicester, Man City manager Pep Guardiola is also concerned about his team's defensive discipline.

"We started the season with clean sheets, we conceded five goals in I don't know how many games. It was incredible how stable it was," Guardiola said.

"But right now we are conceding goals and it's one of the big issues. We have a specific quality of players.

"We have players to play with a ball and it's not a team built to just defend a lot of the time. But you have to make that effort to change that dynamic."

Tottenham Hotspur stepped up their title drive this week, scoring 11 goals while defeating Everton and Bournemouth to move into second place, and they could wrap up the year with a sixth straight league win when hosting Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday.

Manchester United caretaker boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will look to continue his 100 per cent winning start as they take on Bournemouth at Old Trafford on Sunday.

Following a 3-1 win over Huddersfield Town, United remain sixth, eight points behind fourth-placed Chelsea, who visit Crystal Palace on Sunday.