Arsenal 1 – 0 Liverpool
1 – 0 Diaby (72)
or ‘The Joy Of Six’ for the sake of a cheap gag.
Liverpool were vanquished last night in a solid performance, a win ground out against an obdurate and unadventurous opponent who really only came to life once Abou Diaby had broken the deadlock. With United and Chelsea dropping points, the nine point gap was reduced to six, offering proof that the title race is not a procession, offering hope that the gap can be overhauled. Whether that hope is real or forlorn will be known by mid-April as remaining fixtures run down and the pair encounter the remainder of the top six teams.
Wenger reshuffled before kick-off, Emmanuel Eboue taking the right back slot and Nicklas Bendtner leading the line, ensuring that Andrey Arshavin returned to his most effective, deeper-lying role. The Dane put in a decent performance, for someone with reportedly limited mobility, he appeared to have a full range of movement, including crashing to the ground without concern for his own well-being. The official was suitably unimpressed, a yellow card followed.
The Dane had a few opportunities, skying a couple of shots, denied by Reina in both halves as he sought to make up for lost time, his season being given the opportunity to start now. His general link-up play was good and he was busy making a nuisance of himself to the Liverpool defence, keeping the pressure across the front line, not really allowing the visitors to settle.
There was understandable edginess in the display, partly through a concern for not being caught on the counter-attack, a lot through the nullifying tactics of Liverpool. Chances were at a premium, few clear cut in the first half, some more in the second as confidence grew and the win sought. Almunia intervened from Gerrard’s deflected effort whilst Gallas should perhaps have made Reina work with a header from Cesc’s cross.
Early on Nasri added to injury concerns, eventually succumbing and replaced as half-time approached by Rosicky. The Czech would have a lasting impact, although prior to that his touch betrayed him as he bore down on goal, leaden footed as Reina closed the angle of the near post in the second half.
An unsurprisingly goalless first half transformed when the second commenced. Arshavin and Lucas traded chances, neither troubling the opposition custodians. Ngog though threatened with his pace, Gallas’ tackle reminiscent of Bobby Moore on Pele in the 1970 World Cup. Gallas was excellent last night, his tackles generally well-timed but positionally, he snuffed out a lot of the danger before it really emerged.
With the final quarter of the game in progress, the Arsenal breakthrough came. Bendtner bundled, huffed, puffed and eventually found Rosicky whose pacy cross was met by the marauding Diaby; an absolutely cracking header which was close to being unstoppable. In fact it was since Reina failed to get anywhere near it. Patrick Vieira may have made his return to English football but [Thwack! We will have none of those comparisons here thank you – ed.]
Liverpool picked up a bit after that, although in truth the main threat was from Gerrard conning the referee with his diving abilities. Quite why he did not pick up a yellow card for his tumble as the final whistle loomed when Bendtner received one for a less obvious effort is something that the referee should explain. The EPLs PR department need to look once more at why the officials do not have some sort of limited interview afterwards although the media would not be too happy as it would rob them of the chance to create controvesy.
Almunia has looked under pressure recently. A criticism of him is that he cannot ‘win’ matches for Arsenal. He certainly did his best to dispel that misapprehension with an outstanding save from Babel, tipping the Dutchman’s ferocious drive onto the crossbar late on.
It was not a vintage performance; it did not have to be, a winning one sufficed. There is a long way to go to overhaul the gap at the top and last night should not be taken as a sign that it will be quickly recovered. To the chagrin of those who wrote Arsenal off, the possibility of a title remains, the desire will be the key.
Crucially, patience was shown in the performance, the passes not too hurried on a consistent basis as the points were chased. That will be a key trait that needs to be repeated as opponents seek to stifle Arsenal. Testing times still remain; whilst United and Chelsea have tough fixtures against teams at the top, those at the bottom have points they need for differing reasons. The title race though is not as clear cut as some would have you believe.