Liverpool 4 (Torres 49, 72, Benayoun 56, 90+4) Arsenal 4 (Arshavin 36, 67, 70, 90)
Where do you begin after a game like that? When the complete rollercoaster of emotions finally ended, after an age of injury time, both sides looked flat, with us being denied a famous victory at the last, and Liverpool knowing that their title dream was probably over.
But what a game it was. It had everything – turnarounds, great saves, clearances off the line, a stunning four goal salvo from our Russian magician, late goals, and most of all, shambolic defending from both sides. A 4-3 win would have been a remarkable smash and grab win, and it looked to be going that way until we shot ourselves in the foot yet again.
The only place we can begin is the beginning. Liverpool showed understandable urgency in the first half but after Fabianski had put his Wembley nightmare behind him to deny Torres (three times) and Benayoun, we took the lead against the run of play. Nasri robbed Mascherano, fed Cesc, who squared the ball for Arshavin to hammer in off the crossbar.
At half time Sky made a big deal of whether Cesc was offside or not, which was frankly bizarre. In freeze frame, he was clearly on side, but in any case the fact they were debating it meant the linesman had made the right decision. Gerrard, unsurprisingly, still said he should’ve been flagged despite the clear evidence in front of him. One of these days Sky might get decent pundits.
The lead flattered us, but despite knowing that Liverpool would come out hard in the second half, we couldn’t cope. Song and Denilson were having a nightmare, doing none of the protecting they were in the side for – the only midfielder offering help to the defence was Nasri, who worked hard all night and doesn’t get the credit he deserves for continually tracking back and breaking up attacks.
But one man offering the back five some support wasn’t enough against Liverpool in this mood, and when Sagna sliced his clearance to Kuyt, he was able to find Torres, who powered a header into the corner. Sagna looked off colour all night, as if not yet fully recovered from his illness – he put in a much shakier performance than we’re used to seeing.
Minutes later, we were behind – Fabianski and Gibbs got into a tangle and Kuyt found Benayoun, who nodded in despite Sagna doing his best to hook the ball away. After doing so well up to that point, Fabianski will be disappointed – he somehow ended up in his own net, making the save after the ball had already crossed the line.
Liverpool were rampant, and with two defensive midfielders not doing their job, Wenger acted, bringing Walcott on for Denilson. But it was Arshavin again who sparked us back into life, showing hunger in robbing Arbeloa before lashing a fierce shot past Reina from distance. It was an incredible hit – Reina barely had time to move before it was past him.
The goal was out of the blue, but minutes later it got even better – Aurelio made a hash of Nasri’s cross, presenting Arshavin with the ball on the penalty spot, and he completed his hattrick in style, hammering past Reina again.
That was the time to calm things down, but yet more slack defending meant the lead lasted only two minutes. Torres made mincemeat of Silvestre on the edge of the area, and then fired past Fabianski, who got a hand to it but had little chance to keep it out.
Silvestre had looked like an accident waiting to happen all night – lucky to escape a booking for taking Kuyt out early, he always seemed to need one touch more than necessary, and for all his experience, was unable to take control of the defence. Disappointing, but that’s why he’s fourth choice – the only disappointment is that injuries have forced him into a side playing at a level he no longer seems able to match.
At 3-3, I feared the worst, and Torres nearly completed his hattrick, only for Gibbs to superbly clear off the line. had that gone in, I think we would have lost the game, but with Liverpool searching frantically for the winner, they left themselves open to a counter attack, and from another corner, Walcott sprinted away, laid the perfect chance on a plate for Arshavin, who tucked it away with his left foot. He seems to be equally capable with both feet.
That should’ve been that, but Liverpool kept getting the ball into our box, and eventually Benayoun was given a ridiculous amount of time to fire home from ten yards and grab a point. In a central position, there was no-one near him – five players were outside the area and Silvestre had turned his back. It summed it all up.
Being denied a victory at the last always hurts, but when you reflect on the game you have to concede that it would have been a victory we didn’t deserve. We only had Arshavin’s four efforts on goal, while Liverpool continually tested Fabianski. On the other hand, you could say we played a perfect counter attacking game, only for our defence to let us down.
So what of the individuals? Clearly Arshavin will get the credit, and rightly so. I won’t get into the debate on whether his performance sends a message to Wenger, but it is probably fair to say he’ll be in the critical games next season. Elsewhere, Nasri was superb. Involved in two of the goals, his defensive workrate was outstanding, something I haven’t seen him praised for. His reading of the game is excellent, and he seems to have an innate understanding of when to help his back line out.
Cesc was involved and had some good moments, Fabianski was mostly excellent and will become a quality keeper, and Gibbs was good. On the down side, Song and Denilson were anonymous, especially the latter, and simply couldn’t cope with Liverpool’s energy. Bendtner struggled up front (but then he always does when isolated), and Silvestre showed exactly why United were so happy to let him go.
Overall, despite the late equaliser, it is a good point. Coming off the back of a draining defeat to Chelsea while Liverpool were resting, we were always second favourites, and that before Adebayor and Van Persie had added to our injury troubles. So to go to Anfield and score four times shows the sort of mental strength Wenger has been claiming they possess all season. It maintains the unbeaten run, and proves we can still cut it against the top teams, even when we’re not at our strongest in personnel and performance.
Fourth is all but assured, but we are unlikely to rise higher. I’m putting together a piece on what that means for next season, but that is for another time.
Right now, enjoy Arshavin’s night. We may not have won, but we’ve just scored four at Anfield without half our team. It isn’t all bad. Although I’m not sure my heart rate’s slowed down enough for me to sleep anytime soon.