Dec 152009

Liverpool 1 (Kuyt 41) Arsenal 2 (Johnson og 50, Arshavin 58)

What a difference 45 minutes can make. At half time, our title challenge was in danger of being well and truly over. It wasn’t so much that we were behind, a result that would have left us still points behind Chelsea, a not insurmountable gap when you take our game in hand into account, but that we had been so poor that to be anywhere near Chelsea and United at the end of the season was almost a laughable notion.

But then pride took over. First from Wenger, who let rip with an uncharacteristic dressing down at the break, and then from the players themselves, who went from dominated to dominant in the sort of display that can turn a season around.

In truth, we should have been dead and buried by half time. That we weren’t was down to Torres’ rustiness in missing a gilt edged chance, and Howard Webb’s generosity in not awarding Liverpool a penalty when Gallas clearly brought Gerrard down.

I’m seen it said elsewhere that it wasn’t a penalty because Gerrard had lost control of the ball. Utter nonsense. Late tackles, and even off the ball challenges, are still given as fouls, so this mythical notion that a penalty can’t be given simply because he overhit a touch is pure garbage. Had it been at the other end, we’d be furious.

Of course, it is difficult to feel sorry for Gerrard after his blatant dive last week, I guess what goes around, comes around.

Even with luck on our side, we failed to make it to the break unscathed. An innocuous free kick should have been caught by Almunia, but he got into a tangle and weakly punched downwards, where Kuyt tucked away the loose ball. I have to say, I’ve defended Almunia for a very long time – I really am an advocate of giving players chance after chance – but it is increasingly difficult to make a case for him staying in the side.

As poor as we were in the first half, Liverpool matched us in the second. And in bemoaning how little we were threatening their goal, we’d forgotten how this Liverpool side have made self destruction an art form. They gifted us a tame equaliser, Johnson turning Nasri’s cross into his own net after getting his feet horribly tangled.

It wasn’t his last poor moment. Less than ten minutes later, he failed to deal with another Nasri cross, allowing Arshavin a split second to turn away from him. There was still much for the Russian to do, but boy did he do it well, smashing the ball in off the near post with Reina motionless. It was a sublime finish, and his fifth goal in five shots at Anfield. Some record.

There was still over half an hour to go, but Liverpool were already a beaten side. With our defence as shaky as it hasbeen, it was unthinkable that they would not muster another shot on goal, but they didn’t, and even the delayed introduction of Aquilani made little difference. Liverpool are a broken team.

And I simply cannot understand why any of their fans blame anyone other than Benitez. How can you complain about a lack of funds when you spend nearly £40m on two players in the summer – one being a right back who cannot defend, and the other an injury prone midfielder who you don’t even play when fit? Aquilani has been ready for a month now, but Benitez has allowed the crisis to spiral without throwing his last resort on the field. That is not the fault of the owners, but the manager.

Wenger, by contrast, had a great day, sparking the second half performance with an outburst at half time rarely seen from the man. Even Cesc, who has been in the side for five years, has never seen him so angry:

“The boss screamed. I’ve never seen him like that before. He was really disappointed in the first half and said we didn’t deserve to wear the Arsenal shirt if we played like that. And I think he was right. In the second half we turned it around.”

Quite the quote. One of the great things about losing your rag so rarely is that people sit up and take notice when you do. In that context, it is little surprise that we were so improved in the second half.

It was a massive result. We still have a lot to prove – a better team would have punished our awful 45 minutes, but if the second half can be replicated on a regular basis, then we’re right back in contention.

It truly was a perfect weekend.

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