Liverpool 1 (Koscielny og 23) Arsenal 2 (Van Persie 31, 90)
What a week it has been. After half an hour of last weekend’s North London derby, it appeared that the gap between us and Spurs would increase to a mammoth and surely unassailable thirteen points, with Chelsea and Liverpool taking over as favourites to pip us for fourth. Just six days later, the gap between us and our increasingly nervous neighbours is down to four, while we lead a dispirited Chelsea by three and Liverpool by ten. And it has been achieved in the most extraordinary fashion.
Much of Arsenal’s display today was actually pretty ordinary. Liverpool had plenty of the ball, countless excellent positions and a verve in the tackle. We had less of all of those, but we did have a critical factor – sheer quality at both ends of the pitch. In recent times, Liverpool have created much but converted little, and it was easy to see why when you watched them close up for ninety minutes. By contrast, we had Robin van Persie, who barely seemed to touch the ball all day, but buried his only two chances emphatically. And the same sense of opposite could be said of the respective goalkeepers – Szczesny was formidable, keeping us in the game, while Reina will be disappointed with the goal that ultimately decided it.
Szczesny had already come off his line to mop up a dangerous through ball when he became the hero in one of the game’s major talking points. Suarez exchanged passes with Kuyt before going to ground over the keeper’s challenge, and Mark Halsey pointed to the spot, a decision that was proven to be a complete guess when you saw the view (or lack of) that he had. Actually, saying Suarez went to ground is a slight morphing of the truth – the reality is that he did a double twist worthy of an Olympic gymnast before screaming in apparent and unwarranted agony.
Countless replays eventually showed that if there was any contact, it was a slight brushing of shins after the keeper’s challenge had been withdrawn. Sky, in their infinite wisdom, displayed a freeze frame graphic of the moment, with Jamie Redknapp claiming it as conclusive proof that the penalty was the correct decision. Oddly enough, they didn’t mention the fact that Suarez was already halfway through his melodramatic pirouette by that point. No matter whether there was contact of any sort, this was simulation at its most embarrassing.
What followed was remarkable – Kuyt’s weak penalty was well saved by Szczesny, but with the ball dropping back to the Dutchman, a goal looked a formality. Somehow though, the young Pole got up, flung himself across the goal again and palmed the ball to safety – it was a remarkable and inspirational display of agility.
Minutes later, he was beaten by the unfortunate Laurent Koscielny, whose attempted clearance sliced into the corner. But again, the young keeper showed a determination that endears him to all of us, dragging the distraught Koscielny back to his feet and getting him back in the game. Future captain material, perhaps.
The lead did not last long. We had barely had a sniff of the Liverpool goal before we did to them what so many have done to us in the past – score with our first chance. Sagna was afforded plenty of time out on the right, Liverpool perhaps confident that he could not find the killer cross. Unfortunately for them, he could, and Van Persie stole ahead of the lethargic Carragher to power home an equalising header. It was against the run of play, certainly, and we could easily have gone into the break behind again, with Suarez and Kuyt both hitting the post.
But this is exactly where Liverpool’s problem lies. Many will say they were unlucky not to score more, but I don’t buy it, and neither will many Arsenal fans who have witnessed similar struggles in our own team over recent years (particularly when van Persie has been out injured). How many times have we been denied by a stunning display from the opposition keeper? And how many times have we missed a hatful of chances and gone home feeling hard done by?
It is not bad luck. Keepers have fantastic games when you allow them to – clinical strikers don’t give them a chance. Szczesny’s double save from the spot kick was incredible, but a top striker would have struck the rebound cleanly and scored. Kuyt hitting the post was unfortunate, but not Suarez – he had plenty of the goal to aim at and it was no more difficult than rounding a keeper and scoring from an angle. You expect a goal from a player of his calibre, and hitting the post was not unlucky, it was a poor finish.
These were just two of a number of occasions where Liverpool could and perhaps should have scored. Henderson, who looked out of his depth throughout, wasted two glorious positions in the first half, and the worst came just after half time, when a chipped ball over the top found Downing sprinting beyond our back four, with Suarez alert enough to make a run in the centre. All Downing had to do was square it for a tap in, but he took an extra touch and then passed it far too close to Szczesny, who gathered. It was these instances that cost them, and makes the inevitable Match of the Day ‘unlucky’ claim a nonsense. They weren’t unlucky, they were wasteful. Replace Downing and Henderson with players that are actually worth the amount of money Liverpool paid for them, and they win that game. It says everything about Downing that you cannot see him putting in the terrific cross Sagna managed, despite that sole act being what he was purchased (expensively) to do.
Liverpool continued to waste positions, Van Persie continued to lurk threateningly at the other end, a constant reminder that we would not need the same number of chances to win the game. And in the second of eight injury time minutes caused by Arteta’s Henderson-induced concussion, we struck the killer blow. Song, as he has done so often this season, chipped a glorious through ball to Van Persie, who had stolen a few yards of space. There are very few players who could do what he did next, but after managing it at Everton already this season, our hopes were raised for the unthinkable. He duly obliged – as the ball dropped over his shoulder, he sidefooted a stunning volley past Reina (who should have done better) and the game was won. Liverpool knew it, and even the recent memory of coming back in injury time again us, there was to be no repeat.
After the game, the main man handed his champagne to Szczesny for keeping us in the game, just as he had given his North London derby prize to Theo Walcott the week before. Not captain material? My arse.
Sky chose not to analyse his brilliance, but instead his contract situation, with Jamie Redknapp again making a fool out of himself by declaring it to be all about the money. It isn’t, and it never has been, and frankly, we can all stop talking about it until the summer, where it will all be decided. Right now, he is showing as much passion for the club as anyone, and that is all I care about. Unlike our broadcasters, I prefer to focus on the actual football. Novel, I know.
It has been quite the week. Chelsea’s loss made the day even sweeter, and it remains to be seen what effect it will have if they remove Villas-Boas, as they surely will. Tomorrow we will be hoping for favours from United, who can keep Spurs within reach for us. But today was a victory for a wonderful triumvirate – a terrific young goalkeeper, a lethal striker, and the same opponent-bitchslapping karma that Gareth Bale suffered last week for his own pathetic dive.
Just as last week, we can walk into work on Monday with a grin that gives away just how much we can enjoy the day. And we will.