Liverpool 1 Arsenal 2
Trips to Anfield are always laced with importance and imbued with meaning. Of the top four derivations, a fixture betwixt Arsenal and Liverpool is always the most well mannered, certainly where the supporters are concerned. Though Liverpool`s history is superior to our own, the two clubs I think see a lot in one another and the clash is always engendered with a mutual respect. (Kenyon left his evil smear all over United and Chelsea, whilst Liverpool and Arsenal are largely clubs that have hung on to their sense of tradition and class. Though Gillett and Hicks are doing their best to sully 'the Liverpool way` on Merseyside, whilst Arsenal fans grimly hope that Kroenke and / or Usmanov aren`t allowed to do the same in North London). However, with the results filtering through on Saturday, fate seemed to be beckoning an epoch making result. With Liverpool operating at the nadir of their confidence, one felt that if ever there was a chance for Arsenal to blow their way back into the title equation, this was it. Football changes incredibly quickly, two weeks ago Chelsea were already champions and anybody else who dared take a Premiership pitch before May was an insouciant upstart worthy of contempt. Wolves were dead and buried and on course to do a Derby ("Nobody noticed they were here, nobody will miss them when they`re gone" was a line that stood out for me after their defeat to Chelsea). The Championship race this season is turning into something of a "tallest dwarf" competition with all contenders looking fallible.
Though my personal prediction was for a draw, the away end seemed to be enveloped in cautious optimism, sat as I was two rows behind Bananaman, Batman and the Joker, and one row in front of a triumvirate of Santa Claus`, the Christmas spirit was pervasive. The mutual respect I spoke of earlier was given a delightful kicking with some choice renditions of "Feed the Scousers (Let them know it`s Christmas Time)" and "Thursday nights, Channel 5." Arsenal actually began the game in an adequate enough manner; feeling their way into plenty of possession, but Liverpool`s high octane pressing game made chances difficult to come by. Liverpool took some time to feel their way into the game, but once they did, caution and fear struck Arsenal. The first such signs of concern came in the 12th minute, Samir Nasri time and time and time again left the left flank brutally exposed with his lack of tracking back and Liverpool did not take long to play on his idleness. Lucas set Steven Gerrard free down Liverpool`s right with Thomas Vermaelen and Alex Song in Liverpool`s penalty box for some reason (this was from open play, not as a result of an Arsenal set piece), Gerrard had plenty of time and space to pick up an unmarked Fernando Torres, but he uncharacteristically scuffed his finish straight at Almunia. You have to feel a fitter, sharper Torres would have ruffled the net. In trying to run back all on his lonesome, it was clear William Gallas was in some distress. He was completely unable to sprint for the rest of the match, yet soldiered on with an impeccable defensive display (I think his ailment also focussed Vermaelen on his defensive duties and as a result he too was outstanding). Much has been written about Gallas` lack of altruism in the past, but yesterday I watched a man put himself through the pain barrier for his team (Arsene evidently, lacks confidence in Silvestre as much as the rest of us) and for that he ought to be commended.
The home side began to apply the pressure, with Mascherano and Lucas snapping at heels and frightening Arsenal`s tentative midfield into meek submission. Liverpool might have had a penalty; Steven Gerrard had already started to indulge his favourite habit of lunging to the floor in the area when Gallas took him out. Webb waved away what looked a genuine penalty claim, had Gerrard not already been conjuring the dive by the time contact was made, he might have got his spot kick. Gerrard bleated at the referee in disbelief, it turns out Stevie my boy, that when you consistently cry wolf in such a Machiavellian manner, nobody`s going to show you much sympathy when a feral creature mauls your balls off. I said many times in the immediate wake of the Eduardo incident and in every penalty call we had turned away thereafter that the ultimate punishment for persistent divers is that they will not get genuine penalty calls. The amount of times Robert Pires was felled in the box without reward in his last three years of his Arsenal career was innumerable.
Arsenal were being well and truly pinned back and struggled to create anything of note with Arshavin isolated. The sole opportunity of the first half came when Fabregas floated in a right wing free kick which Vermaelen headed over when he ought at least to have tested Reina. Gerrard took another appalling tumble, maliciously designed to get the already booked Denilson sent off. Though Webb acquiesced to Stevie Me`s faux agony, he still earned a right earful from Saint Steve of Gerrard for not brandishing a red card. The Daily Mail began a "Name and Shame" campaign for divers in the wake of Eduardo`s indiscretion in August, no surprise that for the second week running they have refused to correctly adjudicate their moral outrage to Mary Poppins. Aurelio curled in the resulting free kick, which Almunia rather unconvincingly tried to punch, he flapped at the cross palming it straight down to Dirk Kuyt who tucked the ball away. Questions may be raised towards the linesman as Lucas was standing behind the keeper and blocking Gallas` view on the goal line, which made Lucas offside and active. However, it was a difficult call to make and Arsenal were deservedly a goal down.
Subsequent reports suggest that Arsene went postal at half time with a string of invective, explicitly calling into question the suitability of his players to wear the cannon on their chest. Amos wrote an interesting article yesterday about Arsene`s apparently tougher demeanour where internationals are concerned and I wonder if this has filtered down into a meaner streak from the manager. His refusal to countenance Fabregas playing for Catalonia represents a change in opinion as the likes of Henry, Vieira and Pires were often allowed to participate in charity games and the half time hairdryer might just be a sign that Arsene expects his team to deliver now and the pampering and avuncular eye towards his younger charges and talk of a "young team in development" is now at an end. One can only speculate but whatever spittle laced words were that bounced off the Anfield dressing room walls seemed to resonate in some eardrums because Arsenal were a different beats at the beginning of the second half. A mixture of Liverpool`s lack of confidence (indeed, myself and Lord Lowe had spoken at half time about the home side`s current propensity towards conceding late goals) and lack of energy and Arsenal`s shift in approach, Song and Denilson began to press hungrily, Walcott switched to the left with an eye towards making runs into the centre and pushing Liverpool back. Nasri drew two Pool defenders to him on the left touchline, the ball broke to Fabregas in the area but his shot went straight at Reina.
But Arsenal were level within four minutes of the restart. Fabregas set Nasri free on Arsenal`s right; Walcott again tried to make himself a nuisance further up the pitch by getting into the box, Nasri`s cross first hit Carragher and then clipped the shins of Glen Johnson and trickled into the net. As you know, I don`t buy into the concept of "luck" at all, Arsenal played through Liverpool, Nasri put a good ball into a difficult area and Walcott`s presence panicked the Liverpool backline into the mistake. It was not serendipitous just as there was nothing "unlucky" about Diaby idiotically heading the ball into his own net at Old Trafford. The home side had dropped half a yard in pace and an absolute acre in confidence, Arsenal scented blood and drew it again just seven minutes later. Fabregas sent the ball to Arshavin on the edge of the area; the Russian somehow used the millisecond of time available to him to control the ball in a snatch of space and then send an inch perfect shot into the top corner via the post. Cue delirium in the Anfield Road End. I`ve repeated many, many times before that what makes Arshavin such a special player is his ability to make instant decisions and then execute them with unerring accuracy. He was being closed down rapidly by Carragher and Agger and delivered his shot with zero back lift yet still managed to control the ball and send it into the top corner, his biggest gift to the Arsenal side since arriving in February has been that, in working class London parlance, "he don`t fuck about." He`s also a surprisingly tough character, hard to knock off the ball. There was a very amusing incident towards the end of the match, visible only to those of us in the away end when Agger was clearly becoming irritated with Arshavin, Stevie Me, Minister for Truth and Justice MBE barged in, all pointy fingers, furrowed brow and acid tongue. Arshavin looked on with a butter wouldn`t melt look etched on his features, before waiting until Gerrard and Webb had turned around to give Steve a nice, patronising pat on the bum. It was a gesture Gerrard didn`t seem to appreciate, but hell, there was contact from Arshavin and Gerrard stayed on his feet, so I guess we should be grateful to have witnessed one early Christmas miracle.
Gerrard of course still had time to execute his fourth dive of the game in the centre circle, an attempt to which Webb reacted to with fury and frustration, angrily urging Gerrard to get up, fed up with his antics. It beggars belief that, given that Webb was that visibly annoyed with his constant simulation that he still didn`t have the cohunes to book Sir Steve. (I would also point out that if any of you heard the tuneful refrain from the Arsenal fans of "All you do is fucking dive" on the television, then I will be issuing copyright as the person that started it!) Liverpool were unable to produce a single shot on target thereafter and it was especially pleasing to see Arsenal close the game out professionally, keep their concentration and play for possession in the final stages. Liverpool were simply out of confidence, out of ideas and out of steam. Song and Denilson did an absolutely sterling job in the midfield (Song is recognised more for his all energy displays, but Denilson`s positioning and ability to take the pressure off his defence by playing the ball smartly or drawing the foul to interrupt the opposition should not be underestimated). Vermaelen and Gallas were in "thou shalt not pass" mood and in Andrey Arshavin, we have a guy who can do very little for 89 minutes but win you a game with the stroke of a boot. He has now scored on both of his visits to Anfield and his only visit to Old Trafford (he has yet to play at Stamford Bridge); this is a big game player. How important the victory was in terms of the title race will be revealed in the fullness of time, but needless to say we are still in it- though I still think we`re slightly short in the long run. What we can certainly do this year is be involved prominently for as long as possible and build some confidence for the future. I think being in the mix until May and coming up a little short will serve much better for next season than leading the thing by five points in February before spectacularly throwing it away- a la 2007-08. It was pleasing to see an assured performance from Arsenal; we sensed Liverpool`s weakness in the second half, exploited it, got ourselves in front and then focussed ourselves again on not conceding and playing on the counter attack. It is a sign of maturity we have all too often lacked over recent seasons. Who knows where this campaign will take us? But when I come to draft the season review in June, I hope I am highlighting Arsene`s half time invocation of his players` fitness to don the shirt as the turning point.LD.
TEAM: 1.ALMUNIA, 3.SAGNA, 10.GALLAS, 5.VERMAELEN, 30.TRAORE (18.Silvestre `88), 17.SONG, 15.DENILSON, 4.FABREGAS©, 14.WALCOTT (2.Diaby `71), 8.NASRI, 23.ARSHAVIN (16.Ramsey `90). Unused: 9.Eduardo, 12.Vela, 19.Wilshere, 21.Fabianski.