Saturday, March 3, 2012

Liverpool 1 - Arsenal 2

Arsenal seem to enjoy going down early before the really start to play. That was the case last week, when they trailed Tottenham 2-0 before storming back for a 5-2 victory. In today's match at Anfield, Liverpool were overrunning the Gunners, who didn't appear to be up to the pace or the challenge. Arsenal's defense, especially Kieran Gibbs on the left side, seemed to be out of position on every Liverpool attack. If not for some great defense by Bacary Sagna and excellent goal-keeping by Wojciech Szczesny, Liverpool might have run off to a 3-goal lead within the first half hour. Liverpool did manage to take a 1-0 lead, but only due to a truly horrific own-goal by Laurent Koscielny. With his back to goal and at an acute angle, under no pressure from any Liverpool player, Koscielny nevertheless contrived to skew the ball into his own net. 

Arsenal's offensive reply was not long in coming. Almost out of nowhere, Sagna curled in a beautiful cross over the top of the Liverpool defense. Van Persie beat his marker Jamie Carragher and quite simply headed the ball past Pepe Reina. It was an elegantly simple goal that put the game back in balance. Well, not quite in balance. Arsenal's midfield were as poor in the first half of today's match as they were brilliant in the second half of last week's match. Mikel Arteta, in particular, could not hit the side of a barn door with a pass. The match announcers reported that Youssi Benayoun was playing in the match, but I never actually saw him. No wonder Liverpool dominated possession.  

After Arsenal leveled the match, Liverpool continued to press, and Szczesny continued to deny them. If not for his brilliant goal-keeping, Arsenal would never have stayed in the match after tying it. Even with his brilliance, Liverpool were twice denied by the post. The Gunners were fortunate to get to halftime with the 1-1 score intact. To be fair, it looked as if Liverpool were intent on kicking Arsenal off the pitch, with several  bad challenges going unpunished. The Ref must have known it too because when van Persie retaliated with a petulant kick on a Liverpool player, Mark Halsey kept his yellow card in his pocket.

From the start of the second half, Arsenal played a bit better, but Liverpool still had more possession and created more and better chances. After one Liverpool foray about 10 minutes into the second half, Jordan Henderson caught Mike Arteta with an elbow to the chin, which knocked the Arsenal midfielder out completely. The game was stopped for more than 5 minutes before Arteta  finally was stretchered off the field with an oxygen mask strapped to his face. The match announcers seemed to think the contact was accidental. Based on the video replay, I'm not so sure. 

After Liverpool missed one gilt-edged chance, Arsenal nearly took an improbable lead. Reina made a nice save to deny Theo Walcott. After Liverpool then missed a second gilt-edged chance, the game seemed destined to end in a 1-1 draw, which would have satisfied most Arsenal supporters

Wenger attemped to alter that destiny by replacing the ineffective Benayoun with Gervinho, and later brought on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to replace Abu Diaby (who had only come on 15 or so minutes earlier replace the injured Mikel Arteta - not a good sign for Diaby who has only just recovered from an injury of his own). But it was Liverpool that continued to apply most of the pressure. Consistent with their home form this season, they were unable to put the ball in the back of the net to take all three points. Going into today's match, Liverpool had won only 4 of their 12 home matches, drawing the other 8. 

Finally, Arsenal turned a seemingly inevitable draw into an improbable victory. In stoppage time, it was Robin van Persie again who did the job, after a beautiful pass from Alex Song. Arsenal players and fans must consider this as big a result as last week's comeback win against Tottenham. Not only were they on the road at Anfield, where Liverpool had not been beaten all season, but they were thoroughly outplayed for most of the match, with many players showing  travel weariness after mid-week international ties. 

This outcome effectively eliminates Liverpool from Champion's League contention. They now trail the Gunners by 10 points for the fourth and final qualifying spot. Had the game ended in a draw, Liverpool players would have had reason to feel unfortunate not to have taken all 3 points. As it is, they get nothing at all, while Arsenal get a tremendous boost. It says a lot about this match that Wojciech Szczesny was Arsenal's man of the match even though van Persie scored both of  Arsenal's two goals - one to tie the match, the other to win it.

UPDATE: Value was added to Arsenal's improbable win at Anfield thanks to losses by Chelsea and Tottenham and a draw by Newcastle. Arsenal now sit in the fourth and final Champion's League Position with a slim three-point cushion on the Blues (plus a two-goal advantage in goal difference), and they trail Spurs for third place by just four points. Newcastle's draw leaves them five points behind the Gunners in sixth place.

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