Saturday, 4 April 2015

Arsenal storm to emphatic victory over Liverpool to go second

Arsenal celebrate after Alexis Sánchez, centre background, lashed home the Gunners' third goal in the win over Liverpool.
Arsenal celebrate after Alexis Sánchez, centre background, lashed home the Gunners’ third goal in the win over Liverpool. Photograph: Paul Gilham/Getty Images
Arsène Wenger was eager for his team to pick up where they had left off before the international break, on a sequence of wins, but even in his most optimistic moments he wouldn’t have dared to imagine the sudden blur of startling football that created a chasm between his team and Liverpool.

Having been on the receiving end last season at Anfield, when Arsenal were obliterated in an early kick-off by a burst of attacking football, the tables were turned at the Emirates. Three stunning strikes in eight first-half minutes crushed Liverpool, and demonstrated Arsenal at their best, full of self expression and the desire to play what Wenger describes as “the game we love”.

Three excellent goals, from Héctor Bellerín, Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez, shredded Liverpool, who travelled south with a few headaches as far as their lineup was concerned, and went home with a nauseating migraine. Next season’s Champions League looks a faded dream now.

They looked flummoxed from the off, reorganised in a way that left them uncomfortable and exposed. Kolo Touré came into a back four that missed Martin Skrtel terribly. Jordan Henderson was shunted wide right. Raheem Sterling began up front, the centre of attention.

After Arsenal forced the early issues, with Simon Mignolet picking up the pieces from a Santi Cazorla fizzer and an effort Aaron Ramsey should have scored from, Liverpool did threaten briefly.

Philippe Coutinho’s delicate pass to Lazar Markovic was perfect; Markovic’s layoff to the onrushing Sterling fractionally less so. The crowd held its breath in that millisecond as the goal gaped and the ball traversed towards the supposed man of the moment. Too strong. Sterling flashed a leg at the ball but it was gone.

And soon, so were Liverpool. Brendan Rodgers described it as a “crazy period” from the perspective of his team’s defending. Arsenal seized the moment for an effervescent exhibition.

A move of classic refinement gave them the lead. It started as Özil gathered the ball in the centre circle. He paused. Looked. Calculated. Then he lofted an arcing pass over to Aaron Ramsey on the right, who noticed Bellerín galloping upfield.

The young Spaniard, who has deputised at right-back with such aplomb this season, had the confidence to canter goalwards and plant the ball with his left foot into the far corner of the goal. “He is one of the surprises of the season,” enthused Wenger.

Then came Özil takeover time. The German’s influence on big games is questioned by some, but he demonstrated the peak of his capabilities here. In a promising position he was clipped by Mamadou Sakho, and it was revealing in terms of his much analysed body language that he got up, no nonsense, and grabbed the ball with intent as if to make sure the free-kick was his and nobody else’s. His set-piece was struck beautifully, and sailed past Mignolet. Mesut Özil scores Arsenal’

Wenger said: “What he does is always classy, intelligent, and the timing of his passes is absolutely fantastic. He is agile, flexible and always available in between the lines. When you play with him in the team you would love to play with him. Sometimes he is criticised for his physical challenges but he is on the way and improving in that. He makes a big effort to work hard for the team.”

Arsenal’s third was all about Sánchez demonstrating that spark and high energy, full power game that drives him. His footwork at top speed was sensational, matched by the wellied thump he got on the ball for his 20th goal of the season. The Emirates Stadium is not known for erupting with the joyous noise that greeted that goal – it seemed to be a kind of confirmation of everything Wenger strives for.

With the game seemingly irretrievable, Rodgers sent on Daniel Sturridge at half-time. Liverpool competed more vigorously in a fairly open second half.

They did get one goal back via the penalty spot, when Bellerín tripped Sterling. Henderson stepped up and although David Ospina reached it, the ball made it over the line.

Cazorla came close to restoring a three-goal margin when he struck a post at the end of a sweeping move. That honour went to Giroud, who won the ball on the halfway line, sprinted onto a beautiful return pass from Cazorla, and swerved into space to fire home.

“It was a very convincing win in a very important game,” concluded Wenger.

Arsenal are so enjoying their groove, while Liverpool’s season has been derailed in their big contests against Manchester United and Arsenal. All focus now switches to the FA Cup, where they are short of defensive resources with Emre Can joining Skrtel in the suspensions column after a sending off for two bookable challenges.

It seems bizarre to say “if only” at the end of what was, in spells, the most dazzling and accomplished football Arsenal have played this season.

But playing with the power and panache to take Liverpool apart, it is reasonable for Wenger to wonder what might have been if only Arsenal had started this irrepressible run of form earlier.

The Guardian

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