Liverpool 1 Arsenal 1
So the anguish, the fretting, the chewing of nails and the screaming yourself hoarse with invective is back, along with the delight of poetic justice playing out yards from your face. Someone whom I have known on the away match circuit for some years now moved into my flat last week, so the journey to North London to board the coaches and reacquaint with old compardres felt that little bit more significant. Arrangements were made over the summer to group away scheme memberships with people we travelled with often, meaning an impenetrable line of seven will now be forced to endure me at away games for another season at least. Conversation was typically surreal on the journey Northbound; with baked bean and custard pie fetishists discussed in detail. Whilst we also mused upon the difficulties Spurs` Champions League qualifier opponents Young Boys must have in a marketing sense; ("Follow Young Boys on twitter" hardly screams good advertising).
The first eagerly anticipated checkpoint of the afternoon arrived when the warm up confirmed that Almunia had correctly been given the nod over Fabianski in goal; despite whispers to the contrary on the blogosphere. Jack Wilshere was handed his first league start in a midfield three with Nasri and Diaby, whilst Chamakh and Koscielny made their full debuts. Arsenal began the game well, taking the game to their hosts, who had made good on the promise of a free role for fly chewing new boy Joe Cole. After four minutes, Gerrard`s hack on Eboue saw Arsenal awarded a free kick from 25 yards, Nasri teed up Vermaelen, whose left foot exocet stung Reina`s palms. Though Arsenal were running the game possession wise, they found a cutting edge difficult to come by, a long range sighter from Gael Clichy whistled narrowly over the crossbar as Liverpool constructed a Maginot line in front of their area which Arsenal could not penetrate. It took Liverpool more than half an hour to mount an attack of any great note, when a long clearance saw Jovanovic find a worrying amount of space in the centre circle, allowing him to drive at the heart of the Arsenal defence, but he dragged his left foot shot horribly wide. But the attempt warmed Liverpool cockles and sparked them into life, Johnson exchanged a one two with Kuyt on the edge of Arsenal`s area; Arshavin`s refusal to track back leaving Clichy hopelessly exposed, but Almunia turned Johnson`s left foot drive over the bar. From the resulting corner, David N`Gog met Gerrard`s delivery with a firm header which Clichy cleared off the line as the sun beat relentlessly down on our faces in the Anfield Road End.
The occasion soon reached a temperature to compliment the sunshine on the stroke of half time; Koscielny cleared his lines next to his own corner flag and Joe Cole leapt in with a challenge. Though I don`t think Cole intended to do Koscielny any harm, the tackle was high and reckless and deserving of a red card. The rules state a challenge is worthy of a red card if the tackle is "reckless or likely to cause injury" ergo, Cole had to go. The Liverpool fans did not like the decision and voluminously booed Koscielny`s stretcher as it was taken down the tunnel. In truth; I didn`t much see an advantage for us in the sending off of Joe Cole, I don`t rate him as a player anyway and his effect upon the game to that point had been minimal, if you`re going to go down to ten men, always best to have the man in the free role receive his marching orders as it does little to affect that shape of your team.
As the players emerged for the second half, we discovered Koscielny had been fit enough to continue. Meanwhile, Reina was given some deserved stick from the Arsenal fans behind him; a few chants containing some offensive language were aired, whilst a gloating airing of "Still got Cesc Fabregas" hammered our point home. But it was Liverpool who were laughing within seconds of the restart; a struggling Wilshere was rocking back on his heels on the edge of his own area as Arshavin`s pass whistled past him. Mascherano seized upon the loose ball and played into the channel to the alert N`Gog, he smashed the ball into the roof of the net from a tight angle. I`ve yet to see any highlights so I don`t know if the criticism of Almunia in the goal`s concession is justified, I certainly didn`t get the impression he was at fault from some 90 yards away. But any goal Arsenal conceded was automatically going to be his fault, that was decided some weeks before this game kicked off. The aftermath saw Liverpool begin to control the game as though it were Arsenal carrying a one man deficiency, though they only really threatened once in a period which saw Arsenal pinned back into their own half. Dirk Kuyt nutmegged Clichy, only to find nobody attacking his low cross across the six yard area.
The manager had seen enough and threw on Walcott and Rosicky for the ineffectual Eboue and Wilshere, who had looked out of his depth at this stage of his development. Rosicky immediately brought a direction and assertiveness previously missing in Arsenal`s slow motion passing. Indeed, it was the Czech`s cross which saw Vermaelen tower above Agger only to head wide. Then Arsenal won another free kick on the edge of the box, after a couple of failed daisy cutters from Nasri, Walcott took charge and it`s obviously a technique he`s worked on having hit some good free kicks on pre season. This one arrowed towards the far corner only to see Reina acrobatically turn it aside. Both sides took turns to wield their concealed weapons; the fatigued World Cup Final duo of Torres and van Persie entered the fray, the former receiving a rapturous reception from the home support who had been hitherto very quiet indeed. Liverpool understandably sat deeper as the Gunners struggled to penetrate; with Chamakh lacking support at times and Arshavin playing with the manner of a man who would really rather have been anywhere else in the world. But in the last five minutes, with van Persie`s presence making the ball stick in vital areas for longer, the Gunners began to beat the door down.
Rosicky played the ball into Chamakh, who protected the ball before nudging it back to Rosicky, a beguiling switch of feet took him past Carragher before sending a curling shot towards goal which Reina tipped over. It was exactly the sort of incisive play we could have done with when we were dominating the game in the first half. With six strikers now on board, the visitors began to throw everything forward, Clichy`s left wing cross looked to have crept out of play, but van Persie was alert and kept it alive; hooking the ball back into the six yard area; there was an almighty scramble, but Walcott could not force the ball over the line as Liverpool defenders threw themselves into the path of the goal. But it was a case of third time lucky as the clock struck 90; Rosicky tossed a cross into the area, Chamakh pressed Reina into a fumble, the ball limply struck the post before ricocheting back off Reina and clumsily over the line. The goal showed that, with Rosicky`s assertiveness and Chamakh`s aerial presence, there is presence of an envelope marked 'Plan B.` But more importantly, it showed that sometimes, poetic justice can be a beautiful thing. After his act of Barca bum licking in July that showed enormous disrespect to his opponents, that Reina fumbled comically into his own net a matter of yards away from the gathered Arsenal fans was, well, it was just beautiful. I cannot remember ever celebrating such a crucial goal with laughter. The unforgiving chorus of "Reina, you`re a c***, Reina, Reina you`re a c***" just sealed his misery. Meanwhile, I am trying to get a handle on the reaction had Arsenal been leading 1-0 yesterday only for an Almunia own goal to level the scores at the death.
Liverpool laid siege on Arsenal`s goal in injury time; Koscielny saw yellow for a foul on Kuyt on the edge of the area, Almunia repelled Gerrard`s subsequent free kick. A flurry of corners were resisted, but the Gunners were themselves reduced to ten at the death as Koscielny was shown a second yellow for a deliberate handball. It appeared harsh from my perspective, but not the most scandalous red card of all time. Though there was advantage to be had from Koscielny`s handball it did not appear deliberate enough to warrant sanction. But the referee was probably keen to sate bloodthirsty locals. In the end, a draw was probably a fair result and a satisfying enough one. We were forced to throw in two new boys and deprived of our two most important players against a team with a new manager. Rust is still to be expected at this stage and both sides showed it at various points. We missed Song`s ability to pick up loose balls when we were under pressure at the beginning of the second half and it goes without saying that we missed Cesc`s creativity. His absence made Arshavin`s limp performance all the more disappointing given the extra responsibility on him. Wilshere showed he is still not quite ready to be a starter yet; Rosicky`s willingness to drive at Liverpool`s defence gave us an extra dimension. To borrow the manager`s words after the game, the result was "decent." In the meantime, with reference to Reina, I am reminded of Thom Yorke`s drawl, "This is what you`ll get, when you mess with us."LD.
1.ALMUNIA©, 3.SAGNA, 6.KOSCIELNY, 5.VERMAELEN, 22.CLICHY, 2.DIABY (10.v.Persie `79), 19.WILSHERE (7.Rosicky `61), 8.NASRI, 27.EBOUE (14.Walcott `61), 23.ARSHAVIN, 29.CHAMAKH. Unused: 11.Vela, 17.Song, 21.Fabianski, 28.Gibbs.