Struggling to rejoin elite, Liverpool hosts an Arsenal side used to overcoming blips in season

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LONDON — However many blips and bumps Arsenal endures through the season one outcome is a constant: finishing in the Premier League's top four.

Arsenal has spent 17 consecutive seasons among the elite, ensuring itself of a place in the Champions League year after year. Fans might be frustrated by the shortage of silverware, but it's a level of predictable consistency Liverpool would accept now.

When Brendan Rodgers steered Liverpool back into the Champions League in May after a five-year absence, the club hoped it would be the start of a revival. Instead the surprise runner-up finish in the Premier League seems increasingly just that — a surprise. And probably a one-off, for now.

Preparing to host Arsenal on Sunday, Liverpool is 11th in the standings, already 18 points behind leader Chelsea after losing 3-0 at Manchester United last weekend. Arsenal is only sixth, but the London club is five points in front of Liverpool and just two from fourth place.

For two clubs with aspirations above their current status, Arsenal appears to be only one equipped to achieve much this season. Rodgers, though, is putting a brave face on Liverpool's struggles.

"Despite the result at Old Trafford, I saw moments in our game that I thought were good," Rodgers said. "We created a lot of chances, so I can certainly see signs of us getting back to where we were. We know there's a way to go.

"I think slowly we're getting there ... there are a lot of players adapting."

And there are players out injured still — including striker Daniel Sturridge — which is adding to the loss felt by Luis Suarez joining Barcelona in July.

Arsenal forward Theo Walcott could return, though, at Anfield on Sunday. The 25-year-old Walcott, who has made only two appearances this season following a long-term knee injury, is set to resume full training from a groin problem.

"He is back in training today (Thursday), but only today," Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said. "I might take him (to Liverpool), I don't know yet until he is back to full training. Let's see."

Here is a look at some other things to look for to in round 17 of the Premier League:


AT THE TOP

Stoke has already beaten Arsenal and Manchester City this season, so a trip to Britannia Stadium could pose some problems for leader Chelsea on Monday. But a trio of wins over the last week — in the Champions League, Premier League and then League Cup — show the resilience of Jose Mourinho's side.

"This team has the potential and the quality to be one of the best in Chelsea's history if it can prove it by winning trophies," goalkeeper Petr Cech said.

City, which is three points behind Chelsea in second place, has had the week off due to its earlier League Cup elimination. Manuel Pellegrini's side can provisionally knock Chelsea off top place by beating Crystal Palace by four goals on Saturday.

Manchester United will be chasing a seventh successive victory when the third-place team plays at Aston Villa on Saturday. With each week, Louis van Gaal is banishing memories of David Moyes' dismal season in charge, and showing he can return United to the top four.


SURPRISE TEAMS

West Ham has assumed Southampton's tag as the surprise team in the top four.

Southampton has endured a disappointing month, losing four consecutive league games before being humiliated in the League Cup on Tuesday by third-tier side Sheffield United. It has another difficult match Saturday at Everton, whose manager Roberto Martinez is well aware of the south-coast side's qualities.

"They are a joy to watch and very well structured," Martinez said. "Ronald Koeman has brought some players that have adapted to our league very quickly. They are a team based an attacking football and are very talented and full of flair."

West Ham is two points ahead of Southampton in fourth and host last-place Leicester on Saturday.

"Even though they (Leicester) haven't won since Manchester United (in September) they very rarely lose by more than the odd goal," West Ham manager Sam Allardyce cautioned.

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