Arsenal – Liverpool: 2-1
So many themes, so much riding on an FA cup match (sandwiched amidst even tougher or more important matches), and Arsenal get the needed result. It wasn’t pretty and frailties in the team were on display, but players stepped up, took opportunities, and created a result that will help put the horror of eight days ago behind us. With a new frontline of Poldolski, Sanogo and Oxlade-Chamberlain and rotation at goalkeeper and both fullbacks, Gooners had to be holding their breath on this one. If we could take the result—and only a win would do, even contemplating a return to Anfield for a replay might require a change of undergarments—with this team, it would deepen the squad ahead of the match with Bayern Munich and must-wins in the Premier League. A loss or a draw would mean Liverpool probably deserved to be seen as our superior, and holding them off for the (guaranteed) CL spot (3rd) would become the new narrative…
Before the match, the voices of doom echoed a standard refrain: Wenger was sacrificing the (more winnable) FA Cup for the brighter spotlight of the Champions League. Yaya Sanogo?! In on a free, injured for months, to start the match!? Lucas Poldolski, a player with the opposite reputation (he’s old, well capped by a strong national team, etc.) but also underused this season would start alongside the lanky Frenchman. And then there’s the Ox? Is he a natural replacement for Theo Walcott or is he an extra defensive midfielder? Would his presence signify a boost to our sagging attack or that we were playing (as on Wednesday vs Manchester United) simply not to lose?
From the kick-off, Liverpool appeared dangerous. Knowing that referee Howard Webb would try to calm the match with whistles in the middle of the pitch, observers had to know that set pieces would be a key. And so it was. The match started with strong Liverpool attacks but ones which only found Daniel Sturridge pushed onto his weaker right foot. One was well saved by Fabianski; another found only side netting. Amongst these, our defense had to marshal various set pieces and corners. With Webb at the whistle, the Liverpudlians by way of South America (Coutinho and Suarez) made a meal of every contact, while Sterling and Sturridge were also extreme challenges for our slower right side (Jenkinson and Mertesacker) and not much faster left side (Koscielny and Monreal). In the early minutes, Nacho looked well worked and a weak link but he worked his way back into the match (after an early yellow), and Koscielny again showed why he is one of the best in world football.
On the other hand, while I would’ve preferred more calm possession in the middle of the pitch, we also pressed the large openings. Oxlade-Chamberlain in particular looked up for his chance and won (and took and overhit) an early corner and certainly looked lively. Meanwhile, the large presence of Yaya Sanogo took some time to appreciate, appearing alternately skilled and unschooled, taking touches that appeared both cultured and comical.
Gloriously, we got past 5 minutes without conceding, 10 minutes passed and then 15, and a bit of a pattern was setting in. Clearly set-pieces and quick attacks (mostly resulting in corners) were the order of the day and the first goal would be the key. If Pool got it, we would need two (to avoid the replay), but if we did, they might have to come out even more. At 16 minutes it fell to Arsenal. A corner was cleared wide to Özil who, scanning his targets as if it were a free kick, floated it towards the stacked towers of Mertesacker and Sanogo, the latter chesting down and pounding a shot which was blocked but fell kindly to Oxlade-Chamberlain. Still, it took full concentration and the twenty year-old was up to it, blasting it at waist level past Keeper Jones. YESSSSSS!!!!
The remainder of the half saw Arsenal, with a lead now to defend, begin to shore up and keep better shape, content to try and play on the break. Liverpool carved decent opportunities, but Suarez, who really is the class player in all of England if not the world, was mostly playing provider rather than finisher. As long as we kept him out of the pool, er the 18 yard box, where his diving (and finishing) skills might hurt us, we looked OK. His best effort was a wonderfully curled cross, to which young Sterling should probably have gotten. Maybe in a couple of years… The speedy kid also had a fine chance to go to ground after rounding Jenkinson but instead tried to score. If Suarez stays at Liverpool, Sterling will learn…
Unfortunately our own counter-attack appeared tame. Poldolski cannot provide more than 10 yards of sustained pace and Ozil, Yaya and the Ox were unable to combine to any real effect. 1-nil at halftime, however, felt a whole lot better than 4-nil 8 days ago.
Both teams adjusted well and clearly had new intent after the break. Almost directly from the kickoff, Suarez rounded Nacho too easily and played it to Flanagan who got it back to Suarez in the box with time and space to do his thing. A touch onto his right foot beat Koscielny but made the angle tougher. The incredible reaction speed of Fabianski allowed him to foot-block his shot to the far post. Wow!
Almost before Gooners could appreciate that save, Jenkinson won possession on the right byline, hit a fast first time ball to the Ox, who played a magnificent 1-2 with Ozil. The Ox took one perfect touch to round the defender and buy time to size up his pass, which was inch-perfect for Poldolski to hit home with his weaker right foot. A spectacular team goal and an indication that Arsenal can score on the counter! 2 nil, match over? Not so fast, my friends…
It was clearly a goal we needed but, given that a Liverpool goal would tickle the nerves of every Gooner in the stadium, and with memories of 4 in 20 minutes still fresh, it was FAR from over. As is natural, Arsenal set out to defend and Suarez, rat-dog that he is, sought to get in the box where he could do his bit. Unfortunately, and perhaps pumped up from his well taken goal, Poldolski obliged by foolishly attempting to knick a ball off the Uruguayan from behind. Feeling the touch, Suarez went to ground grabbing the ball and forcing the whistle. No foul and a handball or a Pen? Webb correctly, I fear, chose the latter.
Gerrard converted to the left corner with Fabianski fully covering the right. 2-1 and back to the pressure cooker. Suarez had been rewarded, so the game, his game, was on. Instantly, a leg left out touched Koscielny and Suarez was down clutching his stomach(?). A moment on and Suarez laid a fantastic pass off for Sturridge, but the latter took a touch, allowing Fabianski to make his greatest save of the night, even if there was a tiny bit of contact. Unfortunately for Liverpool, Sturridge, like Sterling earlier, was thinking he could score and forgot to go to ground to get the whistle.
Suarez wouldn’t make such a mistake and from another “well-won” foul, this time by Gerrard, Suarez took the kick from 20 meters. Into the wall it went (on purpose, perhaps?) and Suarez beat Ox to the rebound, toe poking it and theatrically going down. “Fool me once,” Webb must’ve thought, wagging it away with a finger. IMO, as much as the Poldolski foul was on the softer side (but certainly an example of Suarez outwitting our player) the 2nd one was stonewall. Luckily Webb seemed interested in justice more than rewarding Suarez’s abundant cynicism. At least the great champion of the bald people in the weight room had secured the spotlight for himself—right where he likes it.
Poldolski, both hero and goat (or victim, depending on your allegiance), was subbed for Santi Cazorla who soon after showed his worth, helping his countryman (Monreal) at one end without fouling. Unfortunately he looked rusty when a poor clearance fell to him just inside the box and straight in front of goal. Instead of taking a touch and getting an angle, little Santi rushed his volley and found row Z, leaving hope for the visitors.
Though Liverpool was tiring, they would not relent. The next big talking point was ours, however, as ever energetic Oxlade-Chamberlain put the pressure back on Webb, sprawling over Steven Gerrard (already on a yellow) at the other end. It may have looked like Ox had gotten a toe to it, but replays revealed that both players missed the ball. Gerrard was better placed and, in my opinion, it was neither a foul nor a yellow, except maybe for our player who clearly was playing the referee and not the ball. It was given (the foul, not the yellow) and a nice free kick opportunity for Arsenal was Webb’s compromise. Before Ox could take it, he was subbed for Kieran Gibbs.
In the 80th minute we tried again, with Cazorla making a wild swing for a high bouncing ball, which both he and Skrtl missed. Replays show that the defender’s foot got Santi’s ankle, but with the ball bouncing away, Webb refused to blow. Had Santi maybe been more cynical and just touched it on rather than going for goal, perhaps. A tough one to call, I think.
In the 86th even more controversy—another free kick swung in by Gerrard found Fabianski coming to punch but missing with Agger’s header going wide. Replays show another very close call, but it did appear that Agger may have shied from the contact with our keeper. There was contact nonetheless, and our man, brilliant on the night, could have gone from hero to something a bit less.
From here the game wore down. Wenger used his final sub, bringing on Giroud for the refreshingly strong and looking-the-part Sanogo. With recent rumors of our Ollie becoming the BPF (Big Philandering Frenchman) a short stint rather than a glaring spotlight was likely a good call on the manager’s part…
Three minutes of injury time, more whistles, more free kicks and Sturridge trying to hurry shoelace-tying Fabianski, but finally a series of three tweets from Webb and it’s Everton in the quarters.
But, of course, it’s so much more. Liverpool are an in-form team playing at a very high level. They’ve got the best player in English football with an underappreciated supporting cast. That Arsenal were able to stand up to that challenge after the beating we took a week ago and bring additional players into our group of contributors is an added bonus. Performances from Oxlade-Chamberlain and Fabianski were outstanding, even if both were maybe fortunate to stay on the bald man’s good side. Koscielny (my MOTM) showed he can defend against the very best and not get lured into fouling. Another great signing from Ligue Deux made a true contribution and provided a bit of an answer to the endless GoonerDoomer cries of “Oooh, oooh, vat vil ve do vit-out Giroud” –Yaya Sanogo. Poldolski got his goal even if he gave up the penalty, showing that he can still be a factor even with his off-foot, if not much help (or worse) at the defensive end.
It should also be noted that it was all anchored by relentless application by a midfield three of Flamini, Arteta and especially Ozil, who had the key “pre-assists” with gorgeous balls on both goals. Observers, I believe, fail to appreciate the quiet precision he brings to our game and the fact that he is our iron-man playing long minutes, match after match after match, avoiding injury and keeping our play ticking over. Without our record signing, I believe this would have been another (humbling) day of reckoning.
As it is, the nay-sayers will have to wait until Wednesday when (surely) Arsenal will be found out and destroyed by the best club in world football. I prefer than we actually play the match and see what happens. That’s just me, of course, and maybe I’m not being a proper Gooner by suggesting that we might be in with a shout. Today was a step in the right direction (under immense pressure), so I say let’s at least give the lads a chance.