AFCB editor Andrew Weber reviews all the action from Anfield on the opening day of the season…
Arsenal snatched a late equaliser to draw 1-1 with Liverpool as Pepe Reina’s calamitous own goal denied the hosts an opening-day win at Anfield.
Reduced to ten men after Joe Cole’s poor tackle on Laurent Koscielny just before the break, Liverpool responded well to take the lead early in the second-half when David Ngog punished an error by Jack Wilshere.
But Marouane Chamakh’s brave header panicked Reina into putting through his own net and ensured our boys came away from Anfield with a result.
In a game in which the key moments all involved players on their debut, a pair of very late Koscielny’s bookings left both sides with ten men at the final whistle.
Arsene Wenger sprung a couple of surprises in his starting team with Wilshere named in the middle alongside Abou Diaby and Samir Nasri and Emmanuel Eboue selected on the right ahead of Theo Walcott.
The young Englishman had a tough debut, giving the ball away for Liverpool’s goal and misplacing one or two passes, but impressed with his workrate and willingness to establish a physical presence.
Hopefully we will see much more of him this season.
Nasri had a busy game at the heart of the midfield, spraying passes around delightfully despite hanging onto the ball too long on occasion, while Diaby struggled to show off his best qualities from a slightly deeper position.
All three midfielders had decent games but quite understandably, given the trio had never played together, the balance didn’t appear to be quite right at any stage of the match.
Manuel Almunia was given the No 1 shirt in goals, as well as the captain’s armband in Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie’s absence (why not Thomas Vermaelen?), but failed to convince as both a goalkeeper and captain.
Almunia’s first effort was to flap at a Liverpool corner and although he made a couple of routine stops to deny Glen Johnson and Steven Gerrard’s long-range efforts, he did not exude confidence and was partially at fault for not standing tall on Ngog’s opening strike.
The two remaining debutants, Koscielny and Chamakh, were quite impressive.
Koscielny read the game well, made some smart fouls, showed good pace and strength to beat Fernando Torres on a couple of occasions late on and was desperately unlucky to be sent off for a Thomas Mueller-esque handball.
Chamakh meanwhile had a strong debut, never shirking out of the physical battle and forcing the goal by doing what he did best for Bordeaux: putting his head in where other players simply wouldn’t.
Liverpool had the better of the first half in terms of chances created with Milan Jovanovic firing over when he should have crossed and Ngog forcing Gael Clichy, who had a very quiet game at left-back, to clear off the line.
But the game’s complexion changed on the stroke of half-time as Cole, who endured a poor opening 45 minutes and was clearly over-eager to impress, dived in late in the corner to scissor Koscielny’s leg.
Although replays showed that the contact was not as bad as it appeared from the referee’s viewpoint it was still a ridiculous and pointless challenge from a player who had nothing to gain from making such a tackle.
At 11 v 10 one would have expected Arsenal to come out and dominate after half-time but it wasn’t to be as David Ngog capitalised on a mistake by Wilshere to hammer home a shot into the roof of the net.
Wilshere was visibly frustrated with his mistake and his general performance deteriorated from that point until Wenger replaced the 18-year-old with Tomas Rosicky, one of a pair of substitutions that also saw Emmanuel Eboue, who had been fairly anonymous throughout, make way for Theo Walcott.
The chances finally started to flow soon after: Walcott forcing Reina into a decent save from a free-kick and Rosicky pressing the goalkeeper into a wonderful flying save after quick feet and a clever interchange with the third and final substitute, Robin van Persie.
Andrey Arshavin popped up from anonymity to provide a good cross for van Persie that Walcott almost pounced on to open the scoring, but the crucial goal came a minute later when Chamakh’s bravery flustered Reina into an awful fumble.
Koscielny’s red card concluded a frantic final twenty minutes that saw Arsenal come away with the result they just about deserved and spared the blushes of losing to a team that played with ten men for the entire second half.
This was not a brilliant attacking performance: for all of our possession the passing and movement was not crisp enough to move Liverpool’s ten men around and create the space required to punish them.
If there is a real positive to be taken out of this game – other than the impressive debuts of Chamakh and Koscielny – it is that without losing the match, Wenger has been given a final warning of what needs to happen for Arsenal to realistically challenge for the title.
Pre-game I stated firmly that a new first-choice goalkeeper and fourth central defender needs to come in to complete this squad.
If Almunia’s indifferent performance and Koscielny’s red card, which leaves Arsenal with just Vermaelen as the only fit centre-back for Blackpool next weekend, doesn’t force Wenger into acting on making the two signings then put simply, nothing will.
In the end a point was a good result for Arsenal at Anfield and there is plenty to feel optimistic about.
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Check out ‘Yemi’s player ratings from Arsenal v Liverpool here.