Wizards Oezil and Coutinho must step up for key clash
Coutinho and Oezil need to find their form before it's too late
Philippe Coutinho and Mesut Oezil have so much in common.
They are impish mavericks, blessed and cursed with a rare ability to be either inspirational or invisible from week to week.
Both midfielders have been at their respective clubs for four years. Both men find themselves at a bit of a crossroads.
In the case of Liverpool's elfish enigma, it's more of a tricky turn in a country lane than a crossroads.
But Arsenal's Oezil stands at the German autobahn of career crossroads.
The pair meet at Anfield tomorrow morning (Singapore time) and they must wake from an untimely snooze before the season passes them by.
For Coutinho, his dip in form should hopefully be temporary and his undeniable class permanent, but he has certainly picked the wrong time to go Awol.
Before Christmas, the Brazilian was the missing link, the natural successor to Luis Suarez and the bridge between the elite and the also-runs.
He was all things to all Merseysiders, a mesmerising artist very much in keeping with Anfield's fine tradition. Like an American President in a funny baseball cap, he was going to make Liverpool great again.
When Coutinho conducted a masterclass against Watford in November, leaving the field with a goal, an assist and Man-of-the-Match honours, he was labelled the best in the Premier League and better than Oezil.
REDS' WORST PERFORMER
Liverpool topped the table for the first time and were dancing towards the trophy cabinet, with their balletic Brazilian leading the chorus line.
In the recent defeats by Hull and Leicester, however, Coutinho was generally considered to be the Reds' worst performer. He was isolated and irrelevant.
Opponents acknowledged Liverpool's lack of a conventional No. 9 - or even a Velcro-like presence up front to retain possession - and allowed them to fiddle around with the ball in benign areas.
If the Reds couldn't counter quickly, Coutinho couldn't get the ball.
Suddenly, his overwhelming positives - such as his lightweight ability to float away from fullbacks - became negatives (he's too lightweight in the tackle and offers little defensive support).
The fault may not lie with the Brazilian. At present, he's a victim of a quick, pressing system that relies on fast feet up front, nifty fullbacks and solid defensive cover when the move breaks down.
Coutinho has the fast feet.
But Liverpool do not have the nifty fullbacks or the solid defensive cover.
Post-season reinforcements should raise Coutinho's flagging spirits, but an uplifting performance against Arsenal would certainly stop the rot.
Oezil's problems, on the other hand, are deeper, complicated and more depressing.
The wunderkind who waltzed past England in the 2010 World Cup, the youthful beast of Bloemfontein, has turned up intermittently in an Arsenal jersey.
If the reports are true and Oezil leaves the Gunners at the end of the season, his legacy must be one tinged with regret.
The World Cup winner has no obvious weaknesses. His complete package comes with strength, speed and peerless vision, but the mental component remains faulty.
Oezil should've been Arsenal's Paul Scholes or Cesc Fabregas in their prime; smaller, durable geniuses who delivered titles.
But he still drifts through games he should dominate.
Nine goals and eight assists in 29 appearances in all competitions suggest a decent return, but only one assist in Oezil's last five EPL games is a more accurate barometer of his current malaise.
The recent trip to Bayern Munich was the kind of heady occasion that Oezil was signed for. But as the hosts grew in stature, he shrank and vanished.
When Arjen Robben scored the opener, Oezil stood and watched. At one point, only two yards separated them, but the languid Gunner didn't move.
That's the exasperating Oezil, the pampered, half-paced aristocrat that may yet define the last days of Arsene Wenger's falling empire.
So the Anfield encounter offers an opportunity.
For Coutinho, it's a chance to put a wobbling campaign back on track.
For Oezil, it's a chance to stop a mercurial Arsenal career from going off the rails.
Both men need a performance that befits the occasion.
Such talent should not be allowed to sleepwalk through the rest of the season.