View From The North Bank: Liverpool 1 Arsenal 2
Just over a week ago there was a justifiable mood of despondency after defeats in Milan and Sunderland. The prospect of a pivotal derby followed by a trip to Anfield made even the most optimistic fans nervous. How quickly Football can change. We now sit firmly in the top four having seen off Liverpool’s challenge and set up a scrap for third with a faltering Sp*rs.
Much of the satisfaction from the Sp*rs game derived from the total dominance of the final hour of the game. This match was different. It required us to be resolute, to stick at it when we had gone behind and, dare I say it, show mental strength.
In truth, we weren’t at our best against Liverpool; nowhere near in fact. The home side started much the brighter and seemed to have us stretched far too easily. Whilst the back four battled manfully they weren’t being afforded enough protection from those in front. We were often slow to close down and our passing was sloppy; in stark contrast to the focus and intensity of last weekend.
The pressure eventually told when the cheating, racist, Luis Suarez played a neat one two with Kuyt and drew Szczesny from his line. The common consensus in the media is that it looked like a foul in real time. I beg to differ. Despite my obvious bias it looked like he’d made the most of it at best, even on first viewing. Replay after replay confirmed what I suspected; Suarez had taken the ball away from goal and flopped dramatically over the keepers leg. Contact was as minimal as it was irrelevant because Suarez was already three quarters of the way down before the most trivial of contacts had been made. Watch it again and you’ll see clearly.
People talk of buying a foul, drawing a player on to you so that he fouls you. It may be a dark art but there are times when I would agree that if you can tempt a defender into a stupid tackle then so be it. I would argue that that’s different to wrapping your leg around an opponent’s and claiming a foul or, as Suarez did here, just plain throwing yourself to the ground because your first touch has killed a goal scoring opportunity. The media still seem intent on avoiding the word ‘dive’, as they did last week with Bale. There was no making the most of it here. There was nothing to make the most of. Suarez cheated, pure and simple.
Justice was eventually done. Szczesny followed last week’s sledging of Adebayor with a few more verbals for Kuyt. This week he succeeded where he’d narrowly failed before. The initial save was good – if a little unlucky with the rebound heading straight into the path of the penalty taker – but the follow up to push Kuyt’s rebound attempt away from danger was first class.
Hopes that this would provide the catalyst for Arsenal to get some control on the game were dashed only six minutes later when a cross from our left back position, the result of a swift counter from Liverpool, was turned into his own net by Laurent Koscielny. A defender should always look at what he could have done better in these circumstances – especially seeing as this was the Frenchman’s second such concession – but retreating into your own six yard box at such pace is likely to bring about a mishap every now and again.
It also didn’t help that Henderson had so much space to attack with Gibbs slow to get back after an attack. Without wanting to criticise Gibbs too much, given that he’s missed so much football this season, you’d have thought he’d be breaking his neck to get back having been caught up field.
Despite going a goal down we hung in there. The belief that we could still get something out of a game in which we’d been second best for much of the first half remained; probably assisted by last week’s heroics. Only eight minutes had passed when Van Persie got the better of Carragher and headed home from Sagna’s pinpoint delivery. As it would prove to be at the end of the game, as long as we’re in touching distance, Van Persie can make the difference.
Many outlets have run with the “one man team” line since Saturday afternoon. On one level, I can understand why. He’s our outstanding player and most regular match winner. On the other hand, I still think this does the rest of the team a disservice. The fact that we were still in the game at the end of both halves was largely down to a handful of top quality saves from Szczesny. Similarly, Van Persie converted both of his chances with some style but they were ably assisted by Sagna and Song. When you play with a lone striker like we do it stands to reason that that one man will score the majority of the goals, particularly if he’s exceptionally talented. It’s perhaps a source of frustration for other teams but the fact that we have the league’s best striker isn’t something we should be apologetic about.
His second goal in particular was a thing of beauty. Watch the replay and marvel at the way his eyes are fixed on the ball, body adjusting to align with its flight, before stroking neatly through the ball and beyond Reina. The pass from Song deserves credit too. Last week he clipped an inch perfect pass for Theo yet with all the celebration that ensued it was barely mentioned. He can be frustrating at times when he marches forward and misplaces a pass but Alex Song has earned the right to take the odd risk. His tally of 11 assists this season is nothing short of exceptional; especially for a player many thought should be restricted to the role of destroyer. There is no such thing as just a destroyer in a Wenger team; everyone is expected to contribute on the ball. In that regard, Song is going beyond the call of duty. Even Petit, Gilberto and Flamini got forward at times to score or create, though not as often, or as prolifically as Song.
We now find ourselves three points ahead of the current crisis club, Chelsea, and four points behind crisis club in waiting, Sp*rs. We showed earlier in the season that we can string together a decent run of results. We are now in a position to push on and make the most of a renewed feeling of optimism. The task ahead of us on Tuesday night is mammoth, but that allows the players to go out and play with a bit of freedom and see where it takes us. Just winning the game would be a boost after the disaster last time we met but if we can strike early who’s to say what might happen? ‘Any unquoted’ is at 8.8 on BetFair, suggesting that the bookies and the punters believe scoring four is a possibility and worth a punt.
Keep The Faith.