4th place the target as Arsenal hosts Liverpool
LONDON (AP) -Once Premier League heavyweights and regular title contenders, Arsenal and Liverpool are struggling to even secure the minimum achievement of qualifying for the Champions League ahead of their meeting at Emirates Stadium on Wednesday.
Both teams have been left behind in recent years because of the continued excellence of Manchester United and the rise to prominence of big-spending Manchester City and Chelsea.
That trio is fighting for the title once again this season, leaving fourth place - and the final Champions League spot - as the best Arsenal and Liverpool can realistically hope for with 15 matches remaining.
Liverpool can move level on points with sixth-place Arsenal by winning at the Emirates for the second straight season and start making amends for the team's humiliating FA Cup loss to third-tier club Oldham on Sunday.
"Everyone in the dressing room is completely devastated,'' Liverpool midfielder Joe Allen said. "It's the worst feeling in football. It hurts and I feel sorry for the fans.''
Arsenal scraped past second-tier club Brighton 3-2 on Saturday to avoid joining the glut of Premier League teams to be humbled by lower-league opposition in the FA Cup this weekend.
Olivier Giroud scored twice that game, adding to his double against West Ham in Arsenal's 5-1 win last Wednesday. With his tally now up to 13 for the season, the tall France striker is slowly beginning to find his feet in English football after his move from Montpellier.
"He could have played 20 years ago in England, he could played 10 years ago in England and he can play today, because he has everything you need to play center forward,'' Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said of a striker who is being described as a typically English No. 9.
"He has great physical presence. Usually we go more for mobile players who are just on the move but he gives us something different.''
Fourth-place Tottenham and fifth-place Everton are currently blocking the path of their city rivals to the Champions League positions, a reversal compared to recent seasons. Tottenham visits Norwich and Everton is at home to West Bromwich Albion on Wednesday.
After routine FA Cups wins, the Manchester clubs resume their title fight with games against teams that are battling against relegation.
With United hosting Southampton on Wednesday, City has a chance to pile the pressure on the leaders and briefly cut their advantage to two points by beating Queens Park Rangers on Tuesday.
Speculation about the future of City striker Mario Balotelli refuses to go away with only four days remaining in the January transfer window. The Italy international is being heavily linked with AC Milan and City assistant manager David Platt didn't sound entirely convincing Monday in saying Balotelli was staying put.
"As far as we are concerned, I think he is still a Manchester City player,'' Platt said. "I don't think . anything is going to happen.''
City will be without captain Vincent Kompany, who hurt his right calf in the 1-0 win at Stoke in the FA Cup on Saturday and could be sidelined for two weeks.
United hasn't lost in the league since Nov. 17 and with its forward line of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez all in the goals in recent matches, Alex Ferguson's team has a relentless look to them.
"All of the people should know we can win (the FA Cup), as well as the title and Champions League,'' Hernandez said. "We want to win all three, we want to win the treble. That is in our minds.''
The biggest match at the bottom of the standings sees Aston Villa host Newcastle on Wednesday, with both teams in free fall and hovering just above the relegation zone.
Villa is particularly struggling, having picked up only two points from its last six games and reeling after back-to-back cup losses to fourth-tier club Bradford (League Cup semifinals) and second-tier team Millwall (FA Cup) in four days.
"There's no chance I'd walk away from it,'' said Villa manager Paul Lambert, who has received the backing of Randy Lerner, the club's American owner. "You have to fight like anything to get up. You pick yourself up and there's no point in lying down and accepting it.''
Also Wednesday, third-from-last Reading hosts Chelsea, which is 11 points behind United, while Fulham hosts West Ham.
On Tuesday, it's Stoke vs. Wigan and Sunderland vs. Swansea.