Two goals from Robin van Persie gave Arsenal an unlikely 2–1 victory in a match that a dominant Liverpool should have wrapped up by half time at Anfield on Saturday. The Gunners were kept in the game by a series of sparkling saves from 21-year-old Polish international goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny.
The side from North London are now 10 points ahead of Liverpool in the English Premier League table and are looking like favorites for the fourth UEFA Champions League qualification spot after Chelsea lost at West Brom 1–0.
Earlier, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger had some strong words to deliver on the subject of international friendly fixtures in an already crowded schedule. He told sportinglife.com that Belgian defender Thomas Vermaelen had been forced “…to play 90 minutes after being injured… in a friendly game, knowing they do not even go to the European Championship. For me, that is difficult to understand.”
He similarly complained about the Netherlands playing van Persie when the star striker was suffering from a niggling groin strain.
In any event, both Vermaelen and van Persie were declared fit to face Liverpool, who had to do without their injured skipper Steven Gerrard.
Martin Kelly was in for Glen Johnson and veteran Jamie Carragher was called up for his 689th appearance owing to Daniel Agger’s cracked rib, which will keep him on the sidelines for several weeks.
Liverpool Dominant, Szczesny Responds
Liverpool was understandably buoyant following the club’s Carling Cup triumph last Sunday and quickly gained control of the midfield.
The 10-minute mark saw controversial striker Luis Suarez chasing an inviting through ball up the center, but Szczesny was out past the edge of his area like lightning to initially clear with a spectacular diving header, before heading out a second time as the ball was pumped straight back in.
Then on 18 minutes, the Arsenal keeper was adjudged to have upended Suarez beside his near post. Szczesny protested vehemently that Suarez had dived, but referee Mark Halsey was unmoved and pointed to the spot.
The irate Pole then produced an inspired double save to keep out both Dirk Kuyt’s penalty kick and the Dutch international’s attempt to net the rebound.
It was cruel on the young Pole that, after those heroics, Liverpool took the lead only five minutes later when Laurent Koscielny misjudged a speculative cross from Jordan Henderson and sliced the ball into his own net giving Szczesny no chance whatsoever.
Arsenal simply could not seem to put their passing game together and the home side continued to ask all the questions. On 25 minutes, Henderson and Suarez were denied seconds apart by Szczesny and the goalpost respectively.
But with Arsenal’s undoubted quality on the ball, they are always likely to make something out of nothing. A minute past the half hour Bacary Sagna found himself with the ball in a couple of yards of space out on the right flank.
He delivered a first-rate cross into the six-yard area and no prizes for guessing who was there to meet it. Jamie Carragher made the cardinal error of allowing van Persie to get goal-side of him, and the Arsenal skipper headed firmly past Pepe Reina to level things up.
Five minutes before the break Suarez produced a delightful turn and dribble into the Arsenal box but was foiled by another one handed save from Szczesny, which again was right out of the top drawer.
Since the retirement of David Seaman, Arsenal has had real problems trying to find a worthy successor to the former England international. Szczesny is starting to look like the answer to all their prayers.
Van Persie Steals the Points
During the break Kenny Dalglish doubtless told his troops to simply continue on in the same vein and eventually the breaks would come. Indeed, the second half was only two minutes old when a deft flick from Kuyt hit the upright.
Liverpool were consistently sharper in the tackle and generally showing a higher energy level than their opponents all over the park. But they just couldn’t finish their chances.
Arsenal’s apparent woes were compounded when Mikel Arteta was stretchered off following an accidental collision with Jordon Henderson.
Abou Diaby came off the bench to replace Arteta for his first appearance in four months following persistent hamstring and ankle trouble.
With Diaby making some telling passes, Arsenal started to look more the part, but after less than half an hour on the pitch the luckless Diaby suffered a tightening of that troublesome hamstring and he was forced to give way to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
At this point, an interesting statistic that rather told the tale of the match thus far was the corner count which stood at Liverpool 13 Arsenal 0!
The long delay during which Arteta received treatment for a severe concussion before being taken off meant that there would be a full eight minutes of stoppage time.
It was in the 93rd minute that Alex Song spied his captain in a good position on the left side of the Liverpool area. He played a lovely chip over the top of the defense that dropped perfectly for the Dutch master to volley home a left-footed winner.
Reina would have been annoyed to be beaten at his near post, but the ball was struck first time and sweet as you like.
This was the unlikeliest of victories for Arsenal. It was only their fourth win in their previous 19 visits to Anfield where Liverpool has not lost in any competition since May of last year.
“I don’t think we really deserved it to be honest because Liverpool played better,” van Persie told Sky Sports 2.
“It was the same pass from the same guy, Alex [Song], an unbelievable pass,” he added referring to an almost identical goal scored against Everton earlier this year. “This one I hit with the inside of my foot, but again it was an unbelievable pass. Alex is a really good player, he can see it [the pass] and actually do it.”
For Liverpool, it was a difficult loss but manager Kenny Dalglish remained positive.
“I think it’s rewarding to play a team like Arsenal and play as well as we have done, being so dominant in the first half,” said Dalglish. “The scoreline doesn’t really reflect the game. We were beaten because we didn’t score enough goals. Van Persie’s a fantastic footballer, no doubt about that. But we did enough to win that game.”
That final Champion’s League qualifying place now looks a forlorn hope for the Merseyside giants, while Arsenal have received a timely boost ahead of their Champions League second leg clash with Milan in midweek. The tie may be beyond them, but they will certainly want to produce a good showing on the night and restore some pride after the disaster in the San Siro.