Last week we blew away Spurs with a five-star, five-goal derby demolition. This victory at Anfield could not have been more different: we absolutely sneaked it. And, to me at least, it felt just as sweet.
That is in part because in recent months Liverpool have become a team I love to hate. The disgraceful conduct of the club and in particular their manager during the Luis Suarez affair have left a horrible taste in the mouth. As regards Suarez himself, the media’s fawning over his performances doesn’t seem to tally with his consistently wayward finishing.
That said, his movement certainly gave us plenty of trouble. Arsenal were able to start with the same XI that beat Tottenham, and we started the game in a worryingly similar fashion, with plenty of gaps in and around the defence. Fortunately, however, Liverpool’s poor form in front of goal continued, and in Wojciech Szczesny Arsenal had a goalkeeper absolutely determined to keep them at bay.
That was never more clear than in the 19th minute, when Liverpool were awarded a penalty after Suarez went through on goal. Upon first viewing, he seemed to throw himself over Szczesny without any contact. The super super slow-mo replay seems to illustrate a little bang of the shin-pads, but how the referee saw it through a crowd of players and just how such a tiny nick caused Suarez to fly up in the air still bemuse me.
Dirt Kuyt stepped up to take the penalty, but Szczesny flung himself brilliantly to his right to save. However, the ball fell back to the Dutchman, and it looked for all the world as if he would tap in the rebound, only for Szczesny to dive across goal to palm it away. It was a breathtaking display of athleticism and determination.
Szczesny was, therefore, predictably peeved when beaten shortly after by his own man, as Laurent Koscielny failed to sort his own feet out and scuffed Jordan Henderson’s whipped cross in to the near post.
At this point, Arsenal simply weren’t in the game. Our midfield trio seemed too disparate, and Liverpool were exploiting the pace with some the constant movement of Suarez and Kuyt. Then, from nothing, an equaliser. Bacary Sagna found enough space and time to whip in a delicious cross to the near post, and Robin van Persie got the wrong side of Jamie Carragher to nod past Pepe Reina for his thirtieth goal of the season.
With just over half an hour played, it was 1-1. At the same point in the Spurs game, we had given a much better performance yet found been two nil down. It is, as they say, a funny old game.
In the second half, Arsenal improved significantly. A long break in the game at the start of the second half for an injury to Mikel Arteta slowed Liverpool’s momentum, and Arteta’s replacement Abou Diaby actually put in a pretty effective 28 minutes, giving a powerful, precise display and showing little sign of ring-rust. Diaby himself was withdrawn shortly before the end with a possible thigh problem, but the early signs are that it was precautionary. As for Arteta, he has gone to hospital with a concussion, but the club are hopeful he’ll shortly be fully recovered. Fingers crossed for both players.
Liverpool conspired to miss more chances – Martin Kelly somehow miscued from six yards out – but as the game wore on Arsenal began to create opportunities on the break, especially after introducing the pace of Gervinho for the ineffective Benayoun.
Liverpool needed a lesson in how to take a chance, and they got it from Robin van Persie. As the game entered stoppage time, Alex Song picked the ball up thirty-five yards from goal. He hadn’t had a great game, occasionally overrun in midfield, but had already displayed his eye for a crucial pass with a scything through-ball for Kieran Gibbs that led to a chance for Theo Walcott. This time, he clipped a beautiful lofted pass in to the path of Robin van Persie. Just as against Everton a few months back, Van Persie took the shot on the volley. This time, however, instead of striking across the ball with his laces, he placed a side-footed effort inside the near post. Pepe Reina didn’t even move.
It was a magical goal. Some have called it ‘Bergkamp-esque’. It’s a huge compliment, but RVP is his own man, and this was pure Van Persie. He shares that talent that all great players have to foresee a scenario before it happens; the vision to see a goal before it is scored, and the talent to execute it to perfection. Pure brilliance.
Arsenal then saw out eight minutes of injury time, incurred by Arteta’s injury, with surprising maturity. Sub Alex Chamberlain even came close to adding a third with a rasping shot from the edge of the box.
Six points from games against Spurs and the scousers is a tremendous return, and if we can make it nine against Newcastle we’ll have given our chances of finishing in the top four a tremendous boost. As regards yesterday’s result, we owe plenty to key men at either end of the pitch: Wojciech Szczesny and Robin van Persie. Szczesny underlined his enormous potential with a match-winning display, and as for Van Persie? Well, we’re running our of superlatives. In fact, we’re well past that. We’re running out of ways to say that we’re running out of superlatives.
After the game, Sky saw fit to spend the majority of their ‘post match analysis’ discussing whether or not Van Persie would sign a new contract with Arsenal. Outside of a transfer window, I find such chat dull and pointless. As he’s stated many times, he’ll make his decision at the end of the season. In the meantime, it’s impossible to question his commitment to the cause. Last summer pundits were queueing up to say that he “wasn’t captaincy material”, but all season long he’s demonstrated that he’s a player determined to lead by example. His class was underlined by the fact he handed his Man of the Match champagne to Szczesny – a week after doing the same for Theo Walcott.
This win definitively puts Liverpool out of the race for fourth place – though for my money it’s been a straight fight between us and Chelsea for some time. As I type this, Chelsea have just been defeated by West Brom at the Hawthorns, making this a tremendous day for Arsenal fans. Fourth place is now officially in our hands. Gooners will be quietly hoping this defeat doesn’t seen Andre Villas Boas dismissed – he’s doing us plenty of favours at the moment.
There are still plenty of big games between now and May, and we’re all aware that a three point gap at this stage is only worth so much. What’s infinitely more valuable is the fight this squad are displaying: this was their fourth comeback in the space of little more than a month.
We’ve had some dark days this season. Let’s enjoy the good ones.