Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Monday March 5 2012
With Sky`s endless jiggery pokery with the fixture list, it was with bleary eyes that the alarm was thumped unforgivingly at a touch before 6am. After a suitably greasy breakfast, it was time to meet the gang at Euston for our slow (and therefore cheap) train to Stafford, before changing for Liverpool Lime Street. Red Stripe and Jack Daniels was coiffed responsibly and maturely en route. Though by the time we reached Liverpool Lime Street, the slowest shuttle bus service in civilisation left us with no time for a visit to the Arkles pub. (Costing me a chance to meet with Tim Bostelle from 7amkickoff).
Anfield was bathed in early spring sunshine at kickoff; both sets of fans were basking too in the reflected glory of their previous matches. For both, hope sprung eternal that the respective results would be a platform for bigger things. But in the opening exchanges, there was only one team that looked to press that injection of morale into their play. That said, the Gunners were the first to make a goalkeeper work. Kieran Gibbs` diagonal ball found Walcott escape Enrique`s attention, he hooked a cross shot goalwards from a tight angle, Reina stretching to his right to spoon the effort in the air before collecting his feet to catch. But from there, it was all Liverpool.
Carragher`s long ball over the top saw Suarez wriggle away from Koscielny, whose footing deserted him. Szczesny was swiftly out to head clear, but only s far as Downing. He hilariously miscued though with Szczesny out of his goal, leaving the Pole in the goal to clear again with an emphatic header. But The Reds would have an even bigger chance to assume a lead they deserved in a manner that they didn`t. Suarez found space in the area from Kuyt`s pass, then wriggled past Szczesny before flinging himself to the floor, that look of agonised anguish across his face that makes you want to dance on his stupid face. The Uruguayan even pulled his sock down to assess the damage. Szczesny stood over him unimpressed.
Liverpool`s band of internet fantasist supporters have been out in force with super slow mo replays alleging contact. This quite ignores that a) contact still has to be severe enough to knock a grown man to the ground. Generally, most sentient adults I know can still achieve balance after a brush on the hairs of their shinny shin shin. London Underground would be a right mess in the morning if a brush on the leg hair was sufficient contact to initiate a suspension of the rules of gravity. Secondly, Suarez was well on his way down well before his barely decipherable calf tremor. Thirdly, as a rule of thumb, if you require a frame by frame zoom in to discover whether there was contact, it generally means there wasn`t any. Replays showed Halsey`s vision was entirely obscured so he guessed it was a penalty. Twice in six days Arsenal have been undone by penalty area cheating. At Sunderland, we were told Michael Turner`s trip on van Persie could not be given as a penalty due to the referee`s obscured vision.
In any case Dirk Kuyt stepped up with Szczesny yet again pushing the boundaries of gamesmanship, respotting the ball for the Dutchman. Kuyt`s effort was saved by Szczesny, the rebound bounced glibly to Kuyt, who nudged back towards goal, only for Szczesny to claw away. A fine double save. Nevertheless, if that served as a warning to Arsenal, it went unheeded. Kieran Gibbs was caught high up the pitch, Benayoun was not covering, Song was too late to try and plug the gap as the ball was worked out to the right to Jordan Henderson. His low cross was shanked into his own net by Laurent Koscielny. His second own goal of the season and the second Arsenal had conceded to Liverpool.
The Gunners had a mixture of Liverpool`s prolific profligacy and their keeper to thank as Szczesny saved Henderson`s low shot, the rebound fell to Suarez who inexplicably hit the post with the goal gaping. Liverpool have hit the woodwork 21 times this season. They have 30 goals. Shooting practice required. Meanwhile, Arsenal were clinical. Having not been in the game at all, Bacary Sagna motored down the right flank, sent in a teasing, inviting ball, van Persie bullied his way in front of Carragher and headed Arsenal level. But it didn`t bring the curtain down on Liverpool`s dominance. When he`s not generally being a hateful little individual, you are reminded he is a player of beguiling balance and feet. He slalomed past three Arsenal defenders, before sending a low poked effort towards the corner which Szczesny was once again equal to.
Liverpool`s love affair with woodwork continued on the stroke of half time when Charlie Adam`s low cross was touched towards goal by Kuyt, only to see the ball kiss the post and come out. At half time you felt perhaps Liverpool`s chance had gone. With a rousing half time team talk, you thought the Gunners would shake the look of trepidation and move out of the headlights. It didn`t really happen like that, though the home side weren`t quite as superior in the second half. The momentum of the game was suspended somewhat due to a lengthy stoppage when Jordan Henderson tried to give Arteta a sly nudge off the ball which he badly misjudged, leaving Arteta with severe concussion. He ended the day in hospital. Reckless behaviour from Henderson with dire consequences. Match of the Day didn`t even deem it fit to include in their highlights package. (Alas, they also missed van Persie`s sly hand signal to Martin Kelly too). Abou Diaby came on and lasted all of 23 minutes before hobbling off again.
Arsenal would have their goalkeeper to thank once more as he intercepted Skrtel`s knockdown before it got to Martin Kelly. Again, they would be thankful to Liverpool`s incompetence in front of goal. Kuyt`s low cross cut out Arsenal`s entire back four and left Martin Kelly with a tap in inside the 6 yard area, yet he mistimed his strike and it ended up catching the back of his heel before dribbling out to safety. Arsenal`s threatening moves were few and far between, though a Walcott header from Gibbs cross promised more. Whilst Alex Song sliced the home defence with a through ball to Gibbs, he pulled back for Walcott, whose low shot was denied by the legs of Reina.
From about the 75th minute onwards I found myself glancing furtively at the scoreboard, wishing the time away so that we could escape with a draw we scarcely deserved. The fourth official signalled for eight minutes stoppage time. Two minutes into that period, Alex Song found himself some time and clipped an arcing ball into the area, which Carragher missed the flight of. It dropped tantalisingly over the shoulder of van Persie. When the ball is dropping onto the Dutchman`s foot you just know he won`t miss the target. It`s going to be all about whether the keeper can make the save. Van Persie steered the ball with his instep towards the front post, it fizzed beyond Reina, sending those of us in the corner of the Anfield Road End into raptures. Liverpool hadn`t the time to reply. Smash and grab.
Subsequently, other results have gone Arsenal`s way this weekend, but there is still a cautionary tale in the performance, which didn`t do much to harness the momentum of the North London derby win. By definition, Liverpool are the least clinical team in the Premier League. Most other sides would have beaten us with the chances we allowed. Szczesny made some telling saves, whilst good old fashioned incompetence saved us on other occasions. Thankfully, we were clinical. 6 shots on target, 2 goals. Liverpool forced 12 corners to Arsenal`s 0, had 12 shots but only hit the target 4 times (2 accounted for with the penalty and the rebound). The goal as it came was an own goal too. For Arsenal, it was once again van Persie who takes the plaudits. 31 goals for the season now, 10 of them winners. Beyond superlatives, raw data underlines his value.
Worth mentioning a 9th assist for Song too. Arsenal`s more advanced midfielders tend to experience greater pressure on the ball. Playing deeper, Song is usually afforded time and space and he has really grown into a deep lying playmaker of a defensive midfielder, more akin to the style of Xabi Alonso than a Javier Mascherano style destroyer- if we are to look at some of the quality Liverpool have shed as a barometer for comparison. For now, the three points will suffice very nicely. On our train journey home we enjoyed the serendipity too of our train pulling up directly adjacent to the waiting Arsenal team on the platform at Crewe station. Beers and crisps in hand, they were duly saluted from our window. The wonderfully circular nature of the game continually confounds concrete conclusion. Arsenal are a team questioned for their mental strength, who have won their last two away games from losing positions in injury time. Tottenham are title challengers that have shipped eight in a week to Arsenal and United. Sunderland`s short term haul of last minute goals was put down to the O`Neill effect. Now they are shedding last minute goals a plenty. What is sure is that there are many twists and turns yet to come. LD.
13.SZCZESNY, 3.SAGNA, 6.KOSCIELNY, 5.VERMAELEN, 28.GIBBS, 17.SONG, 8.ARTETA (2.Diaby `53, 15.Chamberlain `81), 7.ROSICKY, 14.WALCOTT, 30.BENAYOUN (27.Gervinho `68), 10.v.PERSIE©. Unused: 21.Fabianski, 25.Jenkinson, 29.Chamakh, 49.Miquel.
Date:Monday March 5 2012
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