Arsenal 1 Liverpool 0
A month or so ago, the difficulty of this fixture became somewhat dismissed amidst the literati of names we faced with Liverpool`s opening junket of the season lovingly wrapped in the cling film of turmoil. But much as Arsenal did from a similar position last season, Liverpool have gone back to basics and built a series of solid, if unspectacular victories. Coming into the match, the visitors had kept five clean sheets in six games and snuck quietly back up the table. My pre match prediction of a scrappy 1-0 win for the Arsenal felt like such a sure thing that I very nearly put money on it. I`m the least superstitious person on earth; I think I make Richard Dawkins look like the Dali Lama. But for some reason I decided to take a slightly different route to the game, nothing major, I just went to Arsenal station before walking up Gillespie Road to the Arsenal Tavern. Not a groundbreaking shift in routine but I felt it necessary to break the pattern; the team would have to do the same. There was something slightly surreal about the experience of getting on the Underground at King`s Cross on a crisp, clear skied evening, travelling three stops and emerging at Arsenal Station to a snow blizzard. Fortunately, the snow came too late in the day for the Health and Safety Hitlers to strap on their roller skates and tell a rabble of adults we might slip on the ground and cause ourselves a nasty boo boo.
The toll taken by two morale sapping defeats permeated the crowd as the atmosphere was flat and tetchy in the first half. The fare on offer would do little to raise the noise beyond a murmur as both sides rather cancelled one another out in a dull war of attrition. The opening half contained odd half chances, but hardly anything that got me to my feet. Gerrard hit an early right wing cross which ricocheted off Clichy and looked destined to land in the path of David N`Gog, but Almunia was out sharply to smother. His intervention drew almost no applause from a crowd determined to despise him. At the other end, Cesc Fabregas` right wing corner saw William Gallas find a pocket of space in the area, but he contrived to head the ball over. But excitement was sparse as Liverpool were as tight and defensively well organised. We had to wait nearly half an hour for the first shot in anger, Arshavin, released from the shackles of playing as a centre forward, was able to find space in the right hand channel and slip a smart through ball to Nicklas Bendtner, who took a touch and unleashed a rising shot over Reina`s goal. That was that for a tightly contested, yet not very stirring first half as an icy wind blasted spectators, forcing their teeth to chatter. Liverpool looked like a team that doesn`t concede many goals and Arsenal looked like a team that has been caught on the counter attack one too many times of late, the wingers were understandably afraid to push on and support Bendtner. I say understandable because heaven knows I`ve criticised them enough for over committing to attack recently, it would be duplicitous of me to then scathe them for being cautious.
In the second half however, a game of football broke out. Arsene had obviously impressed upon Arshavin and Rosicky to press on and support Bendtner. I had mentioned seconds before kick off that I felt Arshavin could get change out of Carragher by running at him (particularly as Carragher offers no obvious forward threat as a full back). He appeared to do that at the beginning of the second half until Carragher went off with an abdominal injury, Arshavin jinked past Carragher on the left and, spotting Reina had left a gap at his near post, lashed the ball into the side netting. Almost immediately, Liverpool replied in kind when Lucas Leiva lashed a twenty yard shot narrowly over Almunia`s cross bar. Just short of the hour mark, the clearest glimpse of goal would arrive as Arsenal were again caught on the break. Steven Gerrard played a ball over the top of the Arsenal defence, David N`Gog raced clear past Thomas Vermaelen, put William Gallas using all of his experience and nous, snuffed the chance out as N`Gog bore down on goal with an expertly timed challenge. The second he realised N`Gog had passed Vermaelen and that his defensive partner could only bring him down, he was straight into the tackle with Bobby Moore style precision. If ever a moment defined Gallas` season, that was it. Simply excellent, a match winning intervention. Arsenal were straight down the other end and again it was Arshavin who had dropped off into some space to play a delightful slide rule pass to Tomas Rosicky in the left channel, but as he homed in towards goal, his mind got caught between the pass and the shot and in the split second he took his eye off the ball, it dribbled off his toe and towards Reina.
The Gunners began to push and Nicklas Bendtner, leading the line nearly forced an opening by sheer force of will. His attempted lofted through ball to Fabregas on the edge of the area ricocheted loose in the area, Bendtner was quick to latch on but Reina was out smartly to smother. Bendtner`s next involvement however was less savoury when he received Fabregas` pass, nudged the ball past Agger and threw himself to the ground with a quite blatant dive. A yellow card the correct decision. With support from his flank men, Bendtner was beginning to become the hub of Arsenal`s attacks. Whereas Arshavin looked unsure with his back to goal in his stint as a front man, Bendtner was more suited to the role of buffer. It was he again who received Arshavin`s pass with his back to goal, he fended off Agger before pushing the ball backwards to Rosicky and his shot whistled just over from twenty yards. When the goal did arrive with twenty minutes remaining, it was a very un-Arsenal one indeed and Bendtner was at the hub of it. The Dane spun on the right hand corner of the area and had the presence of mind to slot the ball calmly to Rosicky on his right, the Czech hit a delectable first time cross which perfectly symphonised with the run of Abou Diaby, who rose to head Rosicky`s inviting cross home from close range. An outpour of relief enveloped the stadium. It was now a case of being disciplined, hardly one of Arsenal`s more celebrated qualities.
Of course discipline isn`t one of Steven Gerrard`s great qualities either and he was right on cue with a quite laughable dive in the Arsenal penalty area minutes after the goal. Where Webb had been absolutely correct to book Bendtner, he didn`t have the testicular fortitude or inherent qualities typically displayed by vertebrate species as he refused to book Saint Stevie of Gerrard. But hearts were set a flutter on 87 minutes when Ryan Babel received the ball with his back to goal, he produced a lightning turn to beat Gallas- the only time in the game Gallas was beaten- and thundered a shot goalwards which looked destined for the top corner, only for Almunia to fling his finger tips to the shot and flick the ball onto the bar. Another match winning intervention, but one that the crowd again largely ignored in line with their prejudices. The Gunners decided to break with tradition and actually defend a lead by, you know, sticking some players in their own half. That is apart from Thomas Vermaelen who obviously didn`t get the memo, in the 89th minute he careered into the six yard box to try and latch onto an Eboue cross. Would any other side in the Premiership have a central defender in the 6 yard area when 1-0 up in the 89th minute? Saint Stevie of Gerrardshire once again took a shocking dive on the edge of the area which Coward Webb not only failed to punish, but rewarded with the most appalling free kick decision of the season. If Mr. Webb is that easily fooled, may I suggest that Mrs. Webb be the one to take the car to the garage for the next MOT. Fabregas showed suitable disgust both at the pathetic award and the fact that Webb seemed to want to move the kick three yards further forward to assist Saint Stevie. The wall hit Fabregas` arm in the wall, but Webb didn`t see that either. Then again, in the 2007 Carling Cup Final, Webb got Adebayor and Eboue mixed up, so I guess you can`t be too surprised.
The final whistle was greeted with the Arsenal players punching the air in delight, whilst Saint Steven of Gerrard questioned Webb`s quite treasonable decision not to give Gerrard the exact decision he requested on royal appointment. Doubtless Webb will be dragged off to the guillotine before the week is out. We moved to the warmth of the concourse to see that United had dropped points at Villa whilst Everton were 2-1 up against Chelsea with ten minutes still to play. Watching a muted Sky Sports screen praying for the final whistle was a surreal experience I grant, but an ultimately satisfying one nonetheless. Oh and Spurs` quest for domination of the Western Hemisphere was dented by defeat to mighty Wolves. All in all a good night and one that bizarrely puts us right back in the title picture, especially when one considers our run in. I still won`t pretend I believe we will win it, but all I`ve wanted this season is to see us make a fist of it. Arsenal have been written off and subsequently ushered back into the title race this season I`m starting to wonder if we`re a yo-yo club. Ultimately, the victory wasn`t a pretty one, but I doubt any of us care this morning. The team showed defensive responsibility, even if that translated into nerves at times. But there was a simplicity about the approach to our goal which was missing in the previous two games. Pass. Cross. Header. Goal. In fact, if I was summing up our performance, I would say simply that we didn`t give Liverpool a demonstration of football, but we were efficient.LD.
1.ALMUNIA, 27.EBOUE, 10.GALLAS, 5.VERMAELEN, 22.CLICHY, 17.SONG, 2.DIABY, 4.FABREGAS©, 8.NASRI (7.Rosicky `34), 23.ARSHAVIN (14.Walcott `67), 52.BENDTNER (3.Sagna `82). Unused: 15.Denilson, 21.Fabianski, 30.Traore, 31.Campbell.
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