Lose to Arsenal, and Liverpool's season is over
ARSENAL v LIVERPOOL
(Tonight, 7.45pm, Singtel TV Ch 102 & StarHub TV Ch 227)
Life's little ironies are hammering Brendan Rodgers like nails in a coffin.
Before Manchester United came along, the Liverpool manager's back was sore from all that slapping.
He was vindicated and victorious. A 13-game unbeaten run in the Premier League was anything but lucky.
He had tinkered and triumphed. Rodgers was marching towards the top four. The Champions League was calling.
By 10pm tonight, his season could be over.
Mathematicians may argue otherwise, but everyone else can read the writing on the wall. It was scrawled across Anfield after the United defeat.
Losing to the old enemies was critical. Losing to Arsenal will be fatal.
A nine-point gap between the Reds and Arsenal would be unbridgeable.
United finishing above Liverpool would be unthinkable. Dropping out of the top four may be unforgivable.
Triumph and disaster are always separated by the finest of margins in the English Premier League.
At Liverpool, it's a hair's breadth. From fabulous to failure in a fortnight, that's the fickle life of the modern Reds manager.
Rodgers has read the sign. This is Anfield. They play by different rules.
And the rules are sacrosanct. A second-placed finish must be followed by Champions League qualification at the very least.
If the Reds fall at the Emirates tonight, they are flops worthy of ridicule, mismanaged by a man on a fool's errand. Rodgers will be flayed alive.
And to avoid the public humiliation, he must rely on the one player who further undermined the manager's authority this week.
Raheem Sterling represents his coach's best chance of clawing back the club's credibility.
In a rash, petulant act that was either naive or stupid or both - Sterling was naive, his advisers were stupid - the 20-year-old went public on his decision to delay signing a new contract.
He craves a swag bag filled with cash and cups.
If Liverpool can't promise him enough of one, then he'll head off to a club that can deliver both.
Neither Liverpool nor Rodgers sanctioned the interview, leaving them redder than their jerseys. Privately, the manager must be seething.
Publicly, he bites his tongue and asks the misguided winger to lead the line.
Sterling is the only fit and viable striking option left at Liverpool's disposal.
The alternatives of Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert are not really alternatives at all, but a nightmare capable only of leaving their manager awake at night and curled up in the foetus position.
Daniel Sturridge's muscle tear continues to irritate and Liverpool struggled in front of goal against both Swansea and United.
In recent weeks, Jordan Henderson has ably filled the void, striding forward to score and assist in vital goals, but his defensive duties are likely to take precedence at Arsenal.
With Steven Gerrard and Martin Skrtel both suspended, Liverpool's weakened spine is clearly cracked.
Henderson and Joe Allen are on hand with the silicone, ready to plug gaps and chase Arsenal's army of playmakers. But their task is a formidable one.
From Skrtel to Sturridge, there are too many broken links in the chain. Most of the jewels are on the other side. Arsenal have won nine of their last 10 games.
After those Devils danced through Liverpool in the pale moonlight, Rodgers cannot come out blazing at Arsenal. The hosts boast superior firepower.
And the rope-a-dope routine backfired against United.
Liverpool lack the depth and stamina to endure punishment for long periods. If they face the whites of Arsenal's eyes, they will wave the white flag soon after.
The Reds are reliant upon explosive flashes of power, a George Foreman-like one-punch knockout.
Philippe Coutinho's creative ingenuity is one option. Sterling's raw speed is the other.
The winger did his best Cuba Gooding Jr imitation this week, imploring Liverpool to show him the money.
Rodgers can only reply with Tom Hanks' final words in Saving Private Ryan - Earn this.
Liverpool's odds of victory tonight are long, but their best shot comes in the form of a rank outsider; an unsettled talent with one eye on his bank balance and the other on the exit.
Sterling insists that he won't consider his future until the season is settled.
If Liverpool lose against Arsenal, he can start making plans tonight.
Rodgers: Reds must show up
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers accepts his side cannot afford not to turn up in another big game if their top-four ambitions are to survive.
Before the international break, the Reds' 13-match unbeaten league run was ended at home to Champions League-chasing rivals Manchester United, leaving them five points adrift of the qualification places.
Defeat by third-placed Arsenal tonight would be a huge blow to their aspirations of returning to Europe's elite for a second successive season.
Rodgers knows they must avoid a repeat of the disappointing first-half display against United which led to their defeat.
"We've made it difficult for ourselves because of our last performance and result, but it's certainly achievable," he said of their top-four chances.
"Over the course of the last three months, apart from the last game, we've performed very well and we have got results.
"I think people might look at it (the trip to Arsenal) as a must-win game. For me, it is a must-perform game.
"We want to perform well and we know that when we do that we've got every chance of winning, whether that's at home or away.
"We've had a long two weeks, it's probably one of the few games where after the international break we've had to suffer a little bit, because we didn't perform and lost, but there is extra motivation there to get something from the game and that is something that we clearly want to achieve.
"These final eight games are going to be exciting games and there is still every possibility for us to make the top four."
Many see the two sides as being similar in their approach to how they play, particularly in relation to how they like to keep the ball.
That was a feature missing in the United game and it cost them dearly and Rodgers has spent a fortnight over the international break assessing where it went wrong after enjoying so much success in the previous three months.
"Our possession wasn't good enough in our last game," he added.
"The key for us in the first half against United was that we didn't keep the ball well enough and, positionally, we were never in position to receive the ball and press the ball.
"We've talked about that, we've analysed that and we've worked on that; in order for us to maximise how we've been working we need to keep the ball better and be technically better.
"That's a huge part of our game, and it's Arsenal's game. But, for us, we'll go there and tactically we are very clear on the idea of the game and we need to get something from the game, that's clear.
"But that was the same before we played the United game; Arsenal was a game that we wanted to ensure that we got at least a point from and that will be the case at the weekend.
"We'll be going there looking forward to the game and really motivated to get back to winning again."
Liverpool have been boosted by striker Daniel Sturridge's return to training after a hip injury, while fellow England international Adam Lallana is also expected to be fit after pulling out of Roy Hodgson's squad.
However, they will be missing centre back Martin Skrtel, a virtual ever-present this season, as he begins a three-match suspension alongside captain Steven Gerrard. - PA Sport.