Liverpool 1 (Ngog 46) Arsenal 1 (Reina og 90)
The footballing obituary was being written. Manuel Almunia, recalled to the side after Lukasz Fabianski had so woefully thrown away his chance to prove himself in pre-season, had been beaten at his near post by Ngog’s fizzer in the opening moments of the second half. At the other end, Reina had dealt well with a Vermaelen piledriver, an excellent Walcott free kick, and most notably, gotten fingertips on a late Rosicky effort that had seemed our best chance of escaping Anfield with a point. The words ‘tale of two keepers’ were on lips up and down the country.
And then Reina proved that even the best can make absolute howlers. Rosicky’s cross looked innocuous, but he lost the ball in the sun, and Skrtel stopped tracking Chamakh, who stole in to nudge the ball against the post. It seemed the chance had gone when it bounced back into Reina’s arms, but he contrived to spill it into the corner and a point was rescued. After his part in the Cesc-Barca-shirt ‘prank’ last month, it seems karma was there to give him an early season kick in the teeth.
It was an equaliser that had looked unlikely. A decent first half performance lacked the chances that the impressive interplay deserved, but Liverpool hadn’t troubled us too much either. But on the stroke of half time, Joe Cole, who had been frustrated by tenacious midfield work on our part, lunged into Koscielny and got his marching orders. The red card was correct – Cole had jumped off the floor and gone in recklessly – but it was nothing like the sort of malicious challenges we’ve been on the receiving end of over the past few years. Credit to Cole who checked on Koscielny at half time.
It was a turning point, but for all the wrong reasons. Previously, we were battling hard, engaged in a tight tussle with a strong team looking to put last year’s troubles behind them. But it seemed the man advantage caused our players to switch off and coast, an infuriating attitude that failed to disappear even after a fired up Liverpool took the lead. Loose passing on the edge of our area saw Mascherano play in Ngog, whose finish was emphatic. As I said earlier though, from the angle he was striking it, Almunia will have been disappointed to be beaten at his near post. Good hit though.
We expected a response, but it failed to materialise. Arshavin looked leggy and disinterested at times, while Diaby was his usual mix of impressive touches and infuriating lack of concentration. The speed of touch of the first half was replaced by a group of players unable to string any incisive passes together.
In fairness, Liverpool defended exceptionally well with their ten men, and it was only going to be a magical moment or a mistake that let us back in, Rosicky provided the magic but was denied in stunning fashion, before Reina went from hero to zero in an instant with his late gaffe.
There were plenty of positives and negatives to take from the game. Starting with the down side – we looked worrying devoid of ideas in the second half, Almunia is clearly still suffering from a lack of confidence (witness his two flaps in the first half), while some of the lazy play has yet to be eradicated from our game. Wilshere looked raw, although at eighteen that should be expected and forgiven.
But while there has been an overwhelmingly negative reaction to the game, there were bright points. Nasri was excellent in the first half, Eboue lively too. Chamakh led the line well against an organised defence, and we looked a threat from corners for a change. But the biggest plus point was Koscielny. I wasn’t alone in having doubts about his slight frame in pre-season, but he was immense at the back today, even coming back to play the second half with a giant lump on his leg from Cole’s challenge. His only blight was the extremely harsh second yellow he picked up at the end for handball, despite Ngog’s very deliberate handball earlier in the half not resulting in a card. It smacked of a jobsworth referee looking to even the game up, and was wholly unnecessary.
We have issues, there can be no doubting it. The fear at Koscielny’s injury was telling of the lack of backup available, and we don’t have a keeper who imbues confidence into the defence. But at the end of the day, while the point was fortunate, it was an excellent result considering we were without Cesc, Van Persie (until late on) and Song, three of our most critical players. A loss would have been a poor way to start the season, a draw in such a tough fixture much less so.
Conclusions? With a keeper and a centre back, we could be a fearsome proposition. Over to you, Arsene.