LONDON, August 21- Liverpool midfielder James Milner claims Monday’s clash with Arsenal is the perfect opportunity to test his side’s improvement since last season.
Brendan Rodgers’ team have been widely written off as also-rans in this season’s title race after limping to a sixth place finish that saw the Reds trail in 25 points behind champions Chelsea last term.
The departure of star forward Raheem Sterling to Manchester City and the continued fitness problems of England striker Daniel Sturridge have also played a role in Liverpool’s low approval rating.
But the Reds have made a quietly encouraging start and head to the Emirates stadium in third place after grinding out 1-0 wins over Stoke and Bournemouth.
Arsenal slumped to a 2-0 home defeat against West Ham before getting back on track with a 2-1 win at Crystal Palace.
And Milner, a close-season signing from Manchester City, believes Liverpool will get the kind of stern examination in north London that should indicate how much they need to improve to challenge for the title.
“They look sharp,” Milner said. “They had a disappointing result in their first game against West Ham but they are a quality team and will want to bounce back from that and try to get their run going.”
Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson is a doubt for the Arsenal game due to a foot injury.
Rocked by their surprise loss to West Ham, Arsenal looked more composed and clinical against Palace and German defender Per Mertesacker has revealed how clear-the-air talks helped them kick-start their campaign.
“Obviously when everything goes very smooth in pre-season, you avoid those talks. But there was a need for it when we came out of the (West Ham) match,” he said.
“You could already feel something when you are in the relegation zone, and not having produced what everyone expected from you, so it was important to bounce back.
“Against Palace it was a very encouraging performance from top to bottom.”
– Lacklustre –
Arsenal’s early inconsistency is nothing in comparison to the dismal start made by Chelsea, who have endured their worst opening for 17 years after a 2-2 draw against Swansea and then a 3-0 thrashing at Manchester City.
Blues boss Jose Mourinho has acted swiftly by signing Pedro Rodriguez — the Barcelona winger who ignored Manchester United’s interest to move to Stamford Bridge — and Ghana left-back Baba Rahman from Augsburg.
With Pedro and Rahman potentially in line for debuts at West Bromwich Albion on Sunday, Chelsea midfielder Nemanja Matic has no doubts his team will soon bounce back from lacklustre opening he blames on the earlier than usual start to the season.
The kick off was moved to August 8 to give England manager Roy Hodgson extra time to prepare his side for Euro 2016.
“Those 10 days in terms of preparation between what we did last year and this year make a difference and is maybe a problem,” Matic said.
“This is football. We have to cope with that. I feel in training that everyone is hungry, everyone wants to win the title. We know what we have to do.”
Early pace setters Manchester City will look to maintain their 100 percent record when the leaders travel to Everton on Sunday.
Fourth placed Manchester United, who host Newcastle on Saturday, have also won their first two fixtures, as well as defeating Club Brugge in a midweek Champions League play-off first leg tie.
None of those matches featured a goal from captain Wayne Rooney, but the England striker is confident of getting off the mark soon.
“It’s early on in the season. I’ve experienced this (criticism) before and the goals will come, I know that,” Rooney said.
“I understand I have to be the one who’s going to lead that line and try and find the goals for us.”
Fixtures (1400 GMT unless stated)
Crystal Palace v Aston Villa, Leicester v Tottenham, Manchester United v Newcastle (1145 GMT), Norwich v Stoke, Sunderland v Swansea, West Ham v Bournemouth
Everton v Manchester City (1500 GMT), Watford v Southampton (1500 GMT), West Brom v Chelsea (1230 GMT)
Arsenal v Liverpool (1900 GMT)