Arsenal short of dambusters

Liverpool defence recovers air of invincibility and exposes champions' weakness
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Arsenal 0 Liverpool 0

Attendance: 38,107

SO WHO are the scrappers now? Liverpool, for so long the dilettantes of the Premier League, mounted a rearguard action at Highbury which made the Alamo look like a fair contest, depriving the champions of precious momentum and reviving memories of Liverpool's more resilient past. "It was an unusual performance," Gerard Houllier, the Liverpool coach, admitted. "In the second half, we just couldn't breathe."

Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal half of the League's first French Connection seemed less than impressed by the Anglo-Saxon qualities imposed on a highly charged afternoon by his opposite number. "They just booted the ball out and whenever we got it back, we were faced by 11 Liverpool players," he said. At least, a week of intense scrutiny of Arsenal's growing record of indiscipline ended in peace, if not quite complete understanding.

The one potential flashpoint came early in the first half when Patrick Vieira was harried from behind by Patrik Berger but this time refused to react. Referee Graham Barber saw the danger and whistled early. Only a niggling feud between Robbie Fowler and Martin Keown spoiled an intense but never overly competitive match. Keown's suspension for his fifth yellow card will further stretch Arsenal resources at a crucial time in the season.

To add to Wenger's problems, Steve Bould suffered a suspected cartilage injury after a tackle with Jamie Redknapp and joined Tony Adams and David Seaman on a lengthy casualty list, although Adams should be back soon. The good news, Wenger said, emerged from the maturity of the new young members of the Arsenal back-four. Matthew Upson looked thoroughly at home and betrayed his inexperience only in heading weakly at David James moments after replacing Bould on the half-hour mark.

That proved to be the best chance of the game for the champions, who once again fell foul of their season-long striking jitters. The final pass never matched the industry, for all the promptings of Vieira and the immaculate Emanuel Petit. "Usually we create chances and don't score, today we didn't create enough chances," Wenger said. Marc Overmars, highly doubtful until moments before the kick-off, appeared with his left leg heavily strapped and Nicolas Anelka was short of match fitness after a fortnight out with injury. That Arsenal should rely so heavily on their half-fit Dutchman spoke volumes for the lack of depth in their increasingly beleaguered squad - and Vieira will miss the next three games through suspension.

What Gallic flair emerged from a match which never quite caught fire came from Petit, who rarely put a foot out of place, and Vieira. Arsenal needed to have every cylinder firing to overrun a stubborn Liverpool defence, but Overmars faded badly after a lively first half and Luis Boa Morte, the stand-in for Dennis Bergkamp, only began his Dutch impression in the second half. For much of the first, Liverpool did just enough to make Arsenal wary of over committing themselves. One lightning move, instigated by the revitalised Berger ended with Michael Owen slicing through a gap between Lee Dixon and Bould.

The delicacy and precision of the Czech Republic international's pass was breathtaking and Owen's instant control put him fractionally clear of the Arsenal defence. Usually, the next act involves the goalkeeper stooping to retrieve the ball from his net, but, this time, the league's leading scorer dallied a fraction too long and Bould stretched out a telescopic leg to block the shot. That, and a stunning volley by Steve Harkness, brilliantly saved by Alex Manninger provided Liverpool with rare glimpses of salvation.

Arsenal's reaction to the stalemate showed their champions' quality. Immediately after half-time, they banished lingering fears, raised their own tempo and put the Liverpool goal under constant siege. "Maybe we could have taken the initiative more, but we were just forced to defend," Houllier said. A frantic smack of his fist into his hand showed what qualities the Liverpool bench were demanding now. But, in truth, apart from an acrobatic parry from a drive by Ray Parlour, James's nerve was not over stretched. A ricochet of shots, one blocked inadvertantly by Boa Morte, the follow- up cleared by Paul Ince, proved the start of a sustained period of Arsenal pressure but a combination of luck and judgement kept Liverpool afloat.

In a rare foray Manninger was forced to fling himself to his left to clutch a 30-yard free-kick by Redknapp 20 minutes from time. Otherwise, Liverpool were unable to find any semblance of their passing rhythm and Owen and Fowler were reduced to chasing shadows until the former was substituted, still grumbling to the referee about a trip by Upson in the closing moments. By the end, Liverpool, breathless indeed, were happy to boot the ball into the corners, while the champions began to tire of their battery. "Boring, boring Liverpool" chanted the North Bank.

"We showed a lot of character and commitment to come away from here with a clean sheet," Houllier said. Never mind the quality, feel the width. The phrase clearly translates quite easily into French.