Arsenal 2 Liverpool 1
Following the naval gazing of the last week in which Arsenal have inexplicably thrown away comfortable leads on two occasions, it was nice to get back down to action. With the arrival of a side like Liverpool, the Boss correctly changed tack slightly with the team selection; the cold hard fact is that the side that defeated West Brom would probably not have beaten a Liverpool side intoxicated with satisfaction having overcome their most bitter rivals on Sunday. So Samir Nasri, Eduardo and Bendtner added a more experienced flavour to a side already featuring the likes of Senderos and Silvestre- who have tasted the absolute pinnacle of cup football in their careers. Though it was clearly a sell out crowd, the pub pre match and the food kiosks at half time were looking strangely threadbare, leaving pie munching, ale supping gluttons like myself sitting on full stomachs come kick off.
Games between Arsenal and Liverpool are normally cagey and fraught with caution (the 4-4 at Anfield in April aside) but the quirk of the competition meant that a winner would have to be found on the night. Both teams seemed to set their stall out early on to win the game outright in 90 minutes. Liverpool created the first opportunity of the game after seven minutes. Andriy Voronin played a pass inside right to David N`Gog who played an exquisite back heel to Philipp Degen with three Arsenal defenders ball watching, but the Swiss right back dragged his shot wide when he ought at least to have tested a rusty Fabianski. Arsenal responded a few minutes later with a sweeping move of their own, Fran Merida turned the ball wide to the impressive Kieran Gibbs, he found Bendtner who played a neat one two with Eduardo, but Eduardo`s return pass was ever so slightly behind the onrushing Dane who subsequently could not get a shot away. It was high octane football, played quickly in tight spaces. Enthralling stuff from both sides. You felt the game deserved a goal and it was the home side that gave the game due decoration. Craig Eastmond-, who impressed in an unfamiliar holding role, pressed Voronin from a Liverpool throw, won the ball cleanly and nudged it forward to Merida. The young Catalonian looked up and saw a snatch of space to move into, with the invitation to shoot in the post, Merida unleashed a rasping left foot drive which crashed in off of Cavalieiri`s near post. A stunning strike befitting of the game.
But Arsenal`s lead was not to last for long. Ryan Babel knocked the ball down thirty yards from goal, Emiliano Insua found a bouncing ball at his feet and Eastmond drifted away from the Argentine, allowing him time to unsheathe a terrific dipping left foot volley which caught Fabianski flat footed and unawares for a quite terrific equaliser. The home side were not downhearted however and responded with a wave of attacks- orchestrated by the increasingly impressive Aaron Ramsey. Ramsey looks a different player this season, his talent was obvious last year, however, at times he would try to do too much with the ball in a bid to impress. With all due respect, having been reared on Cardiff City`s training ground; he would probably have got away with over elaboration. A year alongside Fabregas appears to have taught him to simplify his game and the effect is palpable. He looks to be very close to the first team for me and was the player that I was most enthused about come 10pm yesterday evening.
Arsenal were again to produce some scintillating football minutes before the break, Nasri found Craig Eastmond- relying on his full back instincts marauding down the touch line- and his cut back into the area missed Eduardo by inches. The Gunners next chance arrived in less salubrious circumstances. Cavalieri flapped at a Ramsey corner, the ball dropped into a frantic goalmouth, Eduardo prodded the ball to Bendtner who turned and shot from close range but his attempt fell serendipitously into the arms of Cavalieri. The half time whistle sounded and the game had been a pulsating and quite even one with good football played by both sides.
The pendulum seemed to be swinging Liverpool`s way in the opening exchanges of the second half with literati of crosses into the Arsenal area. But it was the home side that would next draw blood in this absorbing slugfest. Eastmond switched an intelligent ball wide to Fran Merida; he eschewed the opportunity to lump in a hopeful cross and instead picked out Ramsey in the area, who showed quick thinking and great awareness to shift the ball to Bendtner in the area, whose rising shot from a tight angle ruffled the roof of Cavalieri`s net. It was by no means Bendtner`s best match for Arsenal, I got the impression he took his "senior" tag in the wrong way and tried to over complicate things at times. But it was an impressive instinctive finish akin to that which Torres despatched against United so recently. From there, Liverpool began to take control of the match in search of an equaliser. Indeed, they probably deserved one Voronin and Degen played a neat one-two-three on the edge of Arsenal`s area which finished with Voronin angling a cute drive just wide of Fabianski`s upright.
If that attempt deserved a goal based on aesthetics, then with eleven minutes left, Liverpool should have drawn level on the basis of simplicity. Substitute Alberto Aquilani switched a ball out wide to captain Dirk Kuyt and his cross fell invitingly for Ryan Babel who inexplicably miscued from close range. Babel was a player I really liked the look of as a youngster at Ajax, he now looks a bit like a Dutch Jermaine Pennant nowadays. Despite being pegged back for the last throws of the game, Arsenal had opportunities on the counter attack. Eduardo out muscled Degen on the left; powered into the area but dragged his shot narrowly wide with support in the centre lacking. The Gunners showed the value of more experienced heads in a game such as this, with Nasri and Eduardo content to take the ball to the corner flag- something the majority of our squad consider a dirty practise that is beneath them. I would prefer it if the first team did this from time to time, past Arsenal teams have been able to see games out by knocking the ball around amongst one another without feeling the need to go for the grope like a horny teenager. The last five minutes of the 2003 F.A. Cup Final against Southampton comes to mind. The current side has the ability to play keep ball and squeeze the life out of opponents in that fashion. In the end, Arsenal won the spoils from a very close game. There really was a cigarette paper between the sides in terms of quality of play and opportunities created. It was one of the more entertaining games I have seen this season and there is plenty to be enthused about as an Arsenal fan when one considers this was ostensibly our reserve sides against the reserve side of a close rival. That says plenty about our squad, however, the need to put an 18 year old right back in defensive midfield still illuminates that we are short of cover in that position- though I thought Eastmond fared well enough. In the end it was a close game that Arsenal won with a mixture of skill and intelligence. Senderos and particularly Silvestre were steady enough influences at the back to transmit confidence into their attacking colleagues and Nasri got a useful 90 minutes. All in all, a very productive night for Arsenal and the lessons learned from the match will stand some young heads in good stead. Looking at the potential teams we will meet in the next round, they will need to call upon those resources again.LD.
Team: 21.FABIANSKI, 42.GILBERT, 6.SENDEROS, 18.SILVESTRE©, 28.GIBBS, 37.EASTMOND (48.Randall `75), 16.RAMSEY, 8.NASRI, 52.BENDTNER (54.Watt `75), 32.MERIDA (35.Coquelin `87), 9.EDUARDO. Unused; 34.Bartley, 41.Frimpong, 51.Sunu, 53.Szczesny.