Arsenal 1 Liverpool 1
Well it was another day another must win blockbuster at the Grove. Having foolishly imbibed a fair bit of absinthe the evening before, it was with bleary eyes and putrid breath that I made my way to the Olive Tree restaurant for a Gooner Christmas lunch before heading back to the Tavern to punish my liver further. Arsenal v Liverpool matches have been tightly fought affairs in recent years, particularly when we are at home. Liverpool set up very effectively away from home and are difficult to beat; the Gunners are very evidently low on confidence this season. We began the match tentatively, with Nasri, Adebayor and van Persie effectively marshalled by Liverpool. The first chance of note fell to Liverpool when Daniel Agger`s long ball caught Arsenal napping, pregnantly pausing for an offside flag that never came, Keane laid the ball back to Gerrard, but his shot rolled harmlessly at Almunia. Arsenal were finding it difficult to establish any rhythm, but sparked briefly into left when Sagna surged down the right and flighted in a precise cross which Adebayor flicked his head at, but he couldn`t summon up the requisite power to unduly trouble Reina.
What was clear was that it was probably going to take something special to break through. That something special arrived somewhat out of the blue. Nasri picked up possession on the left flank, spotted van Persie running from deep and picked him out with an exquisite flighted ball. What followed was a work of genius as van Persie took the ball down and somehow turned and squirmed into a tiny pocket of space in the area, under great pressure from Carragher he then kept a cool head to slam the ball past Reina on his right foot, or his "chocolate leg" as he referred to it an interview last week. Well it was certainly sweet like chocolate, van Persie has seemingly worked very hard on his weaker foot and it has borne fruit on several occasions of late. His two goal salvo at Stamford Bridge three weeks ago seems to have really invigorated his season and he has begun to show the sort of form of which we all know he is capable. It is also notable that he has been working much harder for the team of recent weeks; I wonder whether Arsene has had words in recent weeks. When Adebayor was sent off in the second half, his work rate was particularly commendable. Long may it continue.
The Gunners could not consolidate their advantage, as Liverpool continued to enervate our attacks, Nasri struggled to get involved from the left and did not really look fit to me, whilst van Persie and Adebayor weren`t receiving much in the way of service. Adebayor would then receive his first booking as he attempted to get his body between the ball and Insua, I felt the booking was harsh, but could understand it as Adebayor`s leg was raised though the malice was non existent. With Arsenal not looking as though they could extend their lead, Liverpool applied the hammer blow when Agger hit another long ball from the left back position which sailed straight over Djourou`s head and into the path of the onrushing Robbie Keane who excellently smashed the ball into the roof of the net. Considering the ball was rising when he hit it, you have to commend the technique and control of the shot. His celebration was less classy and the sort of thing I`ve always thought that footballers on massive wages should be able to rise above. Even David Bentley didn`t celebrate in that manner when he scored at the Grove.
Unlike Arsenal after their goal, Liverpool pushed on and looked to assume ascendancy, Keane arced a diagonal ball over towards Kuyt on Liverpool`s right, Clichy slipped as he looked to intercept, leaving Kuyt time and space to send a low cross into the path of Steven Gerrard who just arrived a fraction too late and could only steer the ball over the bar. Kuyt was again at the heart of the attack when he sent a low diagonals hot goalwards which was smartly tipped round the post by Almunia. Half time was most welcome for the home side but the sight of the captain hobbling off after a 50 50 challenge with Alonso was less welcome. The fact that he failed to re-emerge for the second period in a game where Arsenal were struggling to create chances hardly filled us with confidence.
Liverpool looked to push on at the beginning of the second half, Insua swung in a left footed cross which was headed only to the edge of the area by Gallas, Lucas controlled the clearance and hit a firm shot which was well beaten away by Almunia. The fact that one of Liverpool`s shielding midfielders was camped on the edge of our penalty area told its own story. However, it was a refereeing intervention that would cause howls of derision and intrinsically ruin the contest. Adebayor again looked to shield the ball away from Arbeloa, in order to get his body between ball and man he simply had to lift his foot, which he did for a second before withdrawing. Arbeloa lamentably collapsed in theatrical fashion and Webb sent Adebayor off for his second foul of the game. Had Arbeloa performed the same action on Adebayor in the penalty area I very much doubt he would have given a penalty. Had Arbeloa performed the same action on Adebayor shepherding the ball out for a goal kick, I doubt so much as a foul would have been given. Lucas committed eight fouls in the match, only being cautioned for his final offence, yet Adebayor was clearly treated differently by a referee who sent the same player off in Cardiff and refused to admit that it was a case of mistaken identity and retrospectively award the red card to Eboue. Instead he lied about a phantom punch and given that previous, I find it difficult to believe that did not play a part in Webb`s poor decision. It was also symptomatic of an official who cannot have played the game in any capacity, as he clearly could not judge the level of intent or malice in either of Adebayor`s challenges. Webb fundamentally and systematically failed in his decision and at this level of the game, it is clear he is out of his depth. It was a needless decision that effectively spoiled the contest. Wenger is usually over zealous in his appraisal of red cards against his own players but he was absolutely correct to make the connection between the kind of treatment dished out to Arsenal players away from home and the leniency afforded to offenders. Think of Ryan Shawcross` tackle on Adebayor on the Stoke game which put Ade out of action for three weeks and you`ll start to get the drift.
Conversely though, the man advantage did not do Liverpool many favours. They are a team that set up brilliantly and solidly away from home, but their home results against Fulham, Hull City, Stoke City and West Ham show they struggle when the onus is on them. They had the incentive but did not really know what to do with it. Steven Gerrard was very quiet, save for a pathetic dive in the penalty area that is fast becoming his trademark. Don`t expect much in the way of rebuke for Stevie Me in the media however, particularly as some of football`s foremost journalists are currently drafting his second autobiography. I think they call it knowing where your bread is buttered. Arsenal looked fairly dangerous on the counter, with Diaby pushing up as a supporting striker when we had possession. Nasri fired a shot over the bar, but the Gunners worked very hard and Liverpool did not seem able to apply the pressure in a sustained manner. Agger let fly with a thirty yard exorset which flew narrowly wide and another fine Insua in swinger saw El Zhar head narrowly wide. Given the circumstances, a point was not a result we can grumble about and Liverpool were the better side prior to the sending off. Shorn of Adebayor and Fabregas we are going to have to pull something special out of the bag at Villa Park on Boxing Day and van Persie will have to carry our most potent threat, given the job he did in this game I think it is not beyond him by any means. A circumspect referee will take the headlines but it doesn`t mask the fact that the team don`t look particularly confident in one another`s abilities and the net result is that the passing is not slick enough or purposeful enough to cause enough trouble for teams. This team has a massive Alex Hleb shaped hole in it if you ask me, somebody with the ability to unlock tight defences and begin the sort of moves which bring us goals. The defence will also have to ensure they don`t play as high a line on Boxing Day as they did against Liverpool, or lese Agbonlahor and Young will have a field day.LD.