Dec 212008

Arsenal 1 (Van Persie 24) Liverpool 1 (Keane 42)

Post-match interviews with Arsene Wenger normally see him mention spirit, togetherness and mental strength, even though at times this season it has been exactly those traits that have been lacking. But for the last half an hour of today’s game, when their backs were against the wall, those attributes finally came to the fore.

And they had to, because circumstances had put us in an awful position. Cesc was injured on the stroke of half time, launching into a crunching 50-50 tackle and not getting up, before Howard Webb handed Liverpool what seemed to be an enormous advantage in the second half, sending off Adebayor for his only two fouls of the entire contest. More on that later.

The first half was sometimes scrappy, other times brilliant, with neither defence looking all that comfortable but neither attack having the guile to take advantage, until Nasri’s raking ball from his own half found Van Persie chesting the ball down with his back to goal, still outside the area. From there, I was convinced he would shift the ball on to his favoured left and strike it, and Carragher seemed to think the same, as when Van Persie beautifully turned it on to his right foot, it bought him just enough time to lash home. It was a great goal which lit up what had been an attritional contest.

But after looking comfortable for around ten minutes, the defence again went to sleep, Agger’s hoof out of defence dropped over Djourou’s head, and Keane was quickest to react, lashing home on the half volley with a confidence that belies his sluggish first season at Anfield. Before half time, Liverpool perhaps should’ve taken the lead, and if Kuyt’s cut back had been more accurate, Gerrard would’ve had a tap in. As it was, Gerrard had to stretch, and missed.

But as half time approached, the one player we all feared getting injured did just that, and the way Cesc hobbled away at half time looked really bad. But early estimates have his recovery time at one to three weeks, and if that is the case then we’ve really gotten away with one. Having Cesc injured for any length of time could completely derail what remains of our season, so reliant are we on his creativity and, now, leadership.

Liverpool started much the stronger in the second half, and looked much the likelier side to win it. None of the midfielders were supporting the strikers, and Cesc’s injury seemed to completely flatten morale. And then the referee contrived to make things worse.

Adebayor committed two fouls in the whole match, and both were incredibly harshly deemed to be yellow card offences. The second, where he simply put his body in the way of the ball, only to see Arbeloa throw himself to the ground in embarrassing fashion, would have been laughable had he not been our player. Surely even the most blinkered Liverpool fan would see Ade’s red as ‘soft’, at the very least.

But in truth, it may have done us a favour, because sensing the world was against them, the ten men fought harder than I can remember seeing them do before, and Almunia didn’t have to make a save for the rest of the match. Song, so often criticised, had probably the best half an hour I’ve seen him have for the club, breaking up every Liverpool attack, but he was far from alone. If they play like that for the rest of the season, we’ll be absolutely fine.

As it is, we’ll be without Adebayor and Cesc for the crucial trip to Villa Park on Boxing Day, so it is important that those who fought tooth and nail today do the same on Friday. But who knows with this team?

Let’s just hope we don’t get Howard Webb again, eh?

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