Arsenal sent out a warning to their title rivals that they absolutely mean business by coming from behind to draw 1-1 with Liverpool at Anfield overnight.
Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard opened the score in the 8th minute with a well-struck free-kick from the edge of the area but Arsenal snatched point after Cesc Fabregas finished cleverly following some excellent play from Alexander Hleb. A draw was the least that the visitors deserved after largely dominating the play and hitting the post twice in the second half, but they also relied on some great defending from William Gallas and Kolo Toure and some smart goalkeeping from Manuel Almunia to ensure they returned to the top of the table.
Arsene Wenger made one change to the side that destroyed Slavia Prague midweek, surprisingly dropping Theo Walcott to the bench in favour of a five-man midfield that featured Emmanuel Eboue on the right and Alexander Hleb playing centrally behind Emmanuel Adebayor up front. Eduardo da Silva was left out of the squad completely with Nicklas Bendtner, Gilberto Silva, Lassana Diarra and Jens Lehmann joining Walcott on the bench.
Arsenal could not have got off to a worse start after Gerrard fired home after Xabi Alonso was fouled by Fabregas just outside the penalty area. John Arne Riise tapped the ball sideways to open up the angle and the Arsenal wall simply fell apart as Gerrard’s shot was hammered home, leaving a furious Almunia with no chance. It was the second free-kick that the Spaniard has conceded this season but unlike Gareth Bale’s effort at White Hart Lane, on this occasion he was totally blameless.
Liverpool almost doubled their lead when Gerrard took aim with a volley from the edge of the area but Almunia was equal to the task, turning the ball acrobatically over for a corner. Arsenal then preceded to dominate posession and should have equalised when some good play on the left saw Emmanuel Eboue volley wide after Tomas Rosicky’s cross left Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina in no man’s land. Neither side really threatened after Eboue’s chance and despite Arsenal’s territorial dominance they worringly ended the half without a shot on target.
Changes force the turnaround
The second half began with Liverpool striker Fernando Torres having to be substituted after incurring an abductor injury. Torres was replaced by Peter Crouch and he immediately got involved, testing Almunia’s agility with a fine long-range strike. Arsenal then should have scored after Eboue was released down the right and he cannoned a shot against the right post with Reina well beaten. The rebound fell to Fabregas but his first-time shot was mishit completely and the ball flew over the bar with Reina stranded. Fabregas’ reaction said it all; he really should have scored.
Arsenal then began to fade out of the game as Liverpool created a couple more half-chances but the ascendency turned when Andriy Voronin and Xabi Alonso were replaced by Yossi Benayoun and Arlvaro Arbeloa and Rosicky, Eboue and Gael Clichy were substituted for Walcott, Bendtner and Gilberto. Arsenal began to run their opponents off the pitch and the equalising goal came through Fabregas after he poked home Hleb’s delightfully weighted pass in the 80th minute.
Fabregas then preceded to almost win the game single-handedly after his stunning long-range effort smacked against the same post as Eboue’s shot earlier in the half. As with Eboue’s effort the ball again fell to an Arsenal player and this time it was Bendtner who wasted a golden chance, firing his first-time shot over the bar. As with Fabregas’ earlier miss the big Dane really should have scored and would surely have been kicking himself after the match. Even after Bendtner’s miss Gerrad could have won the match, but Gallas’ excellent block ensured it ended 1-1.
As you can probably gather from the summary above, this was an absolute cracker of a match. I predicted yesterday that Liverpool would be the biggest test that Arsenal have faced this season and it certainly turned out to be the case. Although the boys failed to win the match the result was still positive and they will go into the match against Manchester United next weekend with the knowledge that they have what it takes to challenge for the title, a notion that Wenger agreed with after the match.
“We have come out of our first big test this season stronger. We will go into the Manchester United [game] much stronger. There is a long way to go, but we have the talent to fight right at the top for the Championship.”
Defence outshines attack
Despite a strong performance overall from the team a number of players were not at their best against Liverpool. Up front, Adebayor seemed a little off the boil despite his hard work, failing to fashion a single effort on goal (Edit: Adebayor had one good chance, saved well by Reina). Despite his brilliant piece of play to set up Fabregas’ goal, I thought Hleb was very, very quiet and lacked the directness that he has been showing in recent weeks. Rosicky was largely ineffective and Fabregas himself seemed out of sorts, at least until he caught fire in the last fifteen minutes.
On the plus side, this was one of the best performances from the Arsenal defence this season. Gallas and Toure were sensational at the heart of the defence with the former in particular making a number of crucial late interventions. I thought Flamini had an excellent game just in front of the defence and despite Arseblogger’s contrasting opinion, I felt Eboue was very creative despite a tendency to give away posession a little too cheaply at times. Walcott was good when he came on and Bacary Sagna and Clichy were as solid as ever, easily containing a very narrow Liverpool side and getting forward with good purpose.
I felt that one of the biggest areas that the boys fell down against Liverpool was their reluctance to cross the ball into the penalty area early. There were a few too many cute passes being attempted in and around the area and at times it really felt like watching the Arsenal of last season. While it was good to see the team remain patient after going behind the reality is that a lot of the goals this season have come from early balls into the area and this avenue was explored enough by the wide players. Adebayor was making good positions in around the penalty spot but the fact that he failed to test Reina all evening was a sign that Eboue and Rosicky were not always doing their job.
My personal reaction is that this was a very positive result for Arsenal. Although I am slightly disappointed that Bendtner couldn’t keep his shot down to grab three points I really feel that Wenger’s side will go into the match against Manchester United full of confidence after outplaying one of their major title rivals in their own backyard. If Arsenal can retain their fearless approach and cut out a few of the cute passes then I really feel that they will beat Manchester United on Saturday. Regardless, Wenger can sleep easy knowing that his side’s build-up to the match has got off to a satisfactory start.
What do you think?
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