Arsenal 1 (Diaby 71) Liverpool 0
Football, eh? Yesterday, the club was engulfed in doom and gloom – losses to United and Chelsea had made our title challenge seem forlorn, Liverpool had gone on a run of form that had brought them within touching distance, and even Spurs were bleating about the possibility of catching us up. The Spanish press were capitalising, starting their summer of Cesc stories early.
One day later and everything has changed. A solid victory puts us eight points clear of Liverpool, all but confirming a top three berth, while elsewhere Chelsea lost to Everton and United drew at Villa. The gap is now the same as before our Stamford Bridge defeat, and with easier fixtures on the horizon, we are right back in the race. To complete the perfect evening, Wolves completed the double over Spurs, and Cesc came out to once again refute claims he is set to leave:
“I have denied it. I just want to focus on Arsenal. I think Arsenal Football Club is above everything, every single player in its history and their fans, and the club, and myself – I think we deserve a little bit more respect.”
Feels good, no?
The match itself was turgid for a long time, and the less said about the first half, the better. Liverpool set out their stall to frustrate, and our lack of confidence made their job very easy. But the second half was much improved – Arshavin, Bendtner and Rosicky all got into good positions before wasting the chance, and you felt a goal was coming.
It nearly came at the wrong end – caught on the counter, Ngog sprinted away from Vermaelen, who resisted the temptation to bring him down before Gallas pulled off a terrific saving tackle. The pair congratulated each other on retaining the clean sheet – it was clear just how much they were desperate to shut Liverpool out.
It was a big moment – the first goal in such a tight game was always going to be vital, and it finally came with twenty minutes left. Bendtner’s chipped pass to Cesc came back to him, he slipped the ball to Rosicky who whipped in a magnificent flat cross for Diaby to power home. It was all very unusual, from the quality of the cross to the surging run Diaby had made to get on the end of it, and certainly look Liverpool by surprise.
We lost momentum after that, cagily hanging on to a slender lead, perhaps the biggest indicator of how our confidence has been dented in the last couple of weeks. Almunia pulled off an excellent save, tipping Babel’s piledriver on to the bar and over, but we repeatedly failed to hold on to the ball as the match headed to injury time.
It ended farcically – Gerrard threw himself to the ground and somehow avoided a booking, Kuyt followed suit immediately but Howard Webb bought it, awarding a dangerous free kick with seconds to go. Cesc appeared to block the kick with his hand, leaving Liverpool claiming a penalty as the final whistle blew, ironically missing the fact that a) the free kick should never have been awarded, so Webb actually got both decisions wrong and b) Cesc was outside the area when he blocked the shot. Pundits, players and managers merrily ignored that crucial last point in their analysis
It was not the only time that Gerrard had done his patented starfish impression, a dive that looks so unnatural that it is incredible referees ever fall for it. Legs don’t get splayed like that when you get tripped. At the other end, Bendtner was booked for diving, a fair enough decision – there was contact, but he was already on the way down.
After the run we’ve had, the performance was nowhere near as important as the result, but there were two standout performers without whom we may not have won the game. Diaby was magnificent (and Tim’s pick for Man on the Match over at 7amkickoff), not only for his goal but for perhaps the most disciplined display we’ve ever seen from him – his positioning was terrific all night, and he created, destroyed and created again. Top stuff.
But just pipping him was Gallas, who was an absolute rock at the heart of the defence. Aside from the last ditch tackle, he was continually in the right position to head away a series of set pieces, and marshalled the defence superbly. Whether he will be an Arsenal player beyond the summer remains to be seen, but based on this display I’d love to see him stay.
We now have a week off before the Champions League campaign restarts in Porto next week. Had we lost last night, that gap would have been agonising. Instead, our season is right back on track.
Enjoy your morning.