Liverpool 1 – 2 Arsenal
1 – 0 Kuyt (41)
1 – 1 Johnson (50 o.g.)
1 – 2 Arshavin (57)
“I’ll sthcweam and sthcweam and sthcweam”
Arsene’s urbane manner has long been known to hide a seething volcano of intensity, a desire to win that has brought him considerable success at Arsenal during his reign as manager. Cesc observed yesterday that Wenger had been furious with the first half performance, rightly so for it was truly moribund, apparently questioning whether or not the players deserved to wear an Arsenal shirt. If the Spaniard had never seen Wenger react so emotionally, I would question why, for there have been worse performances.
Whatever was said, the desire effect was induced for as lacklustre as the first half was, the second was dominated with Liverpool rarely threatening to extend their lead or equalise once they had fallen behind. That they were in front at the interval was of little surprise, although Almunia was rarely called upon. When he was, Torres clean through following Gerrard’s swift break down the right, the shot was comfortably saved, aimed at the ‘keeper’s midrift when it should have been buried.
Defensively, much work was done blocking shots, intercepting shots. Five minutes before the break, the hard work that had gone before was undone. Denilson conceded a freekick midway in the Arsenal half. The lofted delivery appeared to be comfortable for Almunia but the Spaniard neither punched or caught the ball, laxly shifting the ball into Kuyt’s path, his shot beating the retreating Gallas on the goal line. Questions can be asked as to whether or not Lucas was offside, his presence possibly distracting the Frenchman but to have ruled the goal out would have been another dubious decision by the referee.
Liverpool are aggrieved with Howard Webb, a not entirely unfamiliar feeling for anyone connected with football. Gerrard apppeared to be tripped by Gallas as he tried to weave his way into the area. It is hard to see why a penalty was not given when Gallas brought Gerrard down. It was a foul and the laws of the game state quite simply that the punishment for tripping an opponent in the penalty area is a penalty kick, irrespective of the position of the ball.
Possibly the only doubt he could have had is whether or not the ball was actually still in play when Gallas fouled Gerrard. Either that or the Liverpool captain is now finding that diving may win you points at the time but the payback when it comes, costs you as many as you have won.
As much as the Arsenal performance in the first half was poor, the second was very good. Liverpool were contained for the whole period, Almunia had nothing but crosses to deal with. The midfield supported Arshavin much better, the opening period saw him chasing, running but seeing little of the ball in productive areas.
Five minutes in and Fabregas released Nasri on the right. The Frenchman crossed aiming for Walcott in the centre; Carragher stumbled, trying to clear the ball, Johnson ambled into the ball’s path and put it in the net. Keystone Cops defending, a simple cross that should have been cleared into the stands. Not that Arsenal were complaining for Liverpool visibly wilted.
Seven minutes later and Arshavin proved his worth. Under pressure, Fabregas dinked a cross in, Arshavin controlled, took the ball around Johnson and fired an unstoppable shot into the roof of the net via the near post. The celebration almost cried out that the player sought Wenger’s approval, a naughty schoolboy asking his favourite teacher, “Was that better, Sir?“.
Thereafter, Liverpool were stifled. Few as the clear cut chances were in the first half, non-existent once a lead had been gained. Apparently, it was the first time since Pires fired in a glorious winner at Anfield that a Premier League side had come from behind to win at the once impregnable fortress, reduced to a post-Reformation monastic ruin in footballing terms.
The performance ought to put to bed the lies that Arsenal cannot play badly and win; shut out games and defend a one goal lead. Vermaelen was key to that, a bedrock upon which the defensive strength was built. I do not recall him losing a tackle but bringing calm assuredness to the team in the second, evidenced by one moment of sublime control under pressure, flicking the ball nonchalently over an opponents head before controlling it with his chest.
Fabregas, Song and Denilson were far improved in the second period, rendering Mascherano impotent in the middle by passing at tempo. The first 45 had seen them too deep, controlled by the Argentine midfielder, even allowing Lucas to look good. The second half saw them pass with pace and move forwards rather than standing still. Walcott was isolated on the wing in the first half, pressurised when in possession, starved of the ball, forced inwards to come looking for involvement and duly harrassed into mistakes. Once the midfield and Sagna supported him, the game opened up. Coming through the match, back to full fitness is key.
One of the cheerier notes for the match was the return on the bench of Eduardo. It would be no surprise to see him lead the line on Wednesday at Turf Moor. The next 48 hours will decide who accompanies him but Diaby will probably fill in one of those spots. I suspect Wenger will be hoping that Traore recovers from his ills. Having been targetted by Liverpool in the first half as a potential weak link, he grew into the game in the second before being substituted.
Three points were vital, three were delivered. Now to maintain the winning run ahead of the Christmas / New Year period where the encounter with Aston Villa is going to be interesting, given they have beaten all of the ‘Big Four’ either home or away.