Football: McManaman's spectacular sideshow

Arsenal 0 Liverpool 1
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The Independent Online
The most telling moment at Highbury yesterday was not Steve McManaman's spectacular winner, but the crowd's reaction when, at half-time, the public address system announced the Manchester United score. Both Arsenal and Liverpool fans groaned in unison. The match, scoreless at the time, suddenly seemed less a crucial game in the title race, more a routine afternoon in the scramble to come second and steal a Champions' League place.

McManaman's goal, volleyed in after 56 minutes, makes that scenario appear ever more likely. Arsenal are now fifth, seven points behind Manchester United, Liverpool are seventh, nine points adrift.

But it is only just December and Liverpool not only have a game in hand, but also host United next Saturday. After the 1-0 home defeat to Barnsley this win, full of character if not quality, will have restored their confidence, especially as they were without Robbie Fowler and Paul Ince.

"I was delighted with the lads. They got what they deserved," Roy Evans, the Liverpool manager, said. "They started nervously, which was to be expected after last week's criticism." Evans also denied reports that he had been told he would be moving "upstairs" at the end of the season. "I'm too young for that," he said, adding that newspaper criticism would not make him walk away either.

Arsenal were missing Patrick Vieira, Ray Parlour and Steve Bould, but they did have Dennis Bergkamp back. However, though prominent early on, he faded and was unable to improve an Arsenal run of one win, and five blanks, in six matches. The one victory, over Manchester United, increasingly looks a fortunate aberration.

"We started well but were not strong enough," said Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager. "Ian Wright [who did not have a shot] is out of form, but he is not the only one. We have a lack of creativity. If we play like that we won't win the championship. But we didn't lose to a great Liverpool side. It was an average game."

There was lots of effort, good individual contests and moments of skill, but there were also plenty of errors and both sides struggled to find the space or incisiveness required of champions. It was, admitted McManaman, a game of few chances. He and Oyvind Leonardsen, each combining quality with endeavour, were the key figures as Liverpool gradually rolled back Arsenal's early control.

Tony Adams and Steven Hughes had gone close and David James had saved bravely at Bergkamp's feet. As Liverpool became more organised defensively these attacks, primarily from through balls, declined. Liverpool, as ever, moved forward more patiently and it was 20 minutes until they created a threat, Michael Owen breaking down the left only for Karlheinz Riedle to be out of position for his cut-back.

This presaged a good spell for the visitors, with McManaman and Jason McAteer driving them forward and Leonardsen and the lively Owen having half-chances.

But Arsenal finished the half stronger with Adams heading just wide and David Platt hitting the side netting. When Steven Hughes shot narrowly wide after the break the pattern appeared to be continuing but Arsenal, with Marc Overmars and Wright anonymous, ran out of ideas. Liverpool pressed and, after Seaman had saved well from Owen, he was beaten when McManaman allowed Stig Inge Bjornebye's throw-in to run past him before turning to volley over the England goalkeeper from the corner of the area.

Arsenal gradually pushed more and more men into attack but, with the midfield simply hoofing the ball forward, their efforts produced only goalmouth scrambles, not chances.

Now Liverpool have to repeat this win against Manchester United. "It is important someone gets three points off them," said Evans, "and we're next up. It's a helluva task to catch them. They don't look as if they are going to suffer a major loss of form."

Goal: McManaman (56) 0-1.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Keown, Adams, Winterburn; Overmars, Platt, Petit (Grimandi, 79), Hughes (Wreh, 64); Bergkamp, Wright. Substitutes not used: Manninger (gk), Upson, Boa Morte.

Liverpool (4-4-2): James; McAteer, Kvarme, Matteo, Bjornebye; McManaman, Redknapp, Carragher, Leonardsen; Riedle, Owen (Murphy, 89). Substitutes not used: Babb, Harkness, Berger, Nielsen (gk).

Referee: G Poll (Tring).

Booked: Arsenal: Adams, Dixon. Liverpool: Matteo, Bjornebye, Owen.

Man of the match: McManaman.

Attendance: 38,094.

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