Liverpool 1 Arsenal 3: Rosicky proves worth and leaves Benitez to count cost of failure

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The Independent Football

For six minutes precisely the ground was swept by feverish protest provoked by an old but unhealable wound, one that waits vainly for the balm of recognition that 96 Liverpool fans died both needlessly and defamed at Hillsborough 18 years ago. Unfortunately for Rafa Benitez's team, when the old emotion was spent on the Kop, so, it seemed, were they.

The explanation, though, had little or nothing to do with that deep and lingering scar on the Anfield psyche. It was framed by a post-match question so harsh it brought an embarrassed smile to the face of the exhilarated Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger. How many Liverpool players, he was asked, would he include in his team that had just separated the FA Cup-holders from their silverware so easily they might have been dipping into the poor box?

Said Wenger: "It is very difficult to say. Every team has a different personality. I think Liverpool played well tonight. We were focused on not letting [Steve] Gerrard and [Xabi] Alonso dictate and I think [Mathieu] Flamini and Gilberto did that very well. It made it more difficult for them."

Benitez, naturally enough, was even more evasive, though he did concede that up to this point - and before a possible takeover from the Middle East - Liverpool have not been able to invest in the quality of such top players as Robin van Persie, Alexander Hleb and the match-winner on Saturday, Tomas Rosicky.

Benitez added: "I'm really happy with my scouting department. The problem is that if you have £10m, OK, you can get this player. But if you don't have it, you have to work harder." For Benitez the pain came with Liverpool's failure - and it was nearly absolute - to make a mere work ethos even begin to equate with the creative impulses flowing into every corner of an Arsenal who last week were outmuscled alarmingly by Sheffield United. After that débâcle Wenger pleaded a weakened team and unacceptably bullying opponents. Such excuses did not sit easily with the manger of highly talented and expensive players operating in the top league in a city that has always prided itself on the quality of its cold steel.

Now Wenger was celebrating renewed purpose and strength - and maybe his World Cup signing Rosicky's rite of passage as a potential replacement for the loss of sophistication - and striking potential - once represented by Robert Pires.

He said: "I feel that for a few weeks the team is very united and determined but even being like that you can lose a game and I think that's what happened at Sheffield United. Today you could see we were strong and it was very difficult to penetrate through our lines.

"[Freddie] Ljungberg and Pires together was 25 goals a season and that means points. I think Rosicky can score more because he is quick, he has good timing and he is very accurate in his finishing. I think he puts too much pressure on himself to finish and rushes sometimes his decision-making. I hope this will help him to be calm in front of goal. Sometimes it is best not to talk about it because you make it more of a problem. We just tried to tell him to relax because he wanted to do so well. He is mobile and technically very good."

The truth was that a tough question had cried for a tough answer. On this form, not one Liverpool player had the credentials to join forces with a unit that struck so easily - twice through Rosicky and once, utterly decisively, with Thierry Henry - at the heart of the team who were going down to their first home defeat in 27 games.

Benitez claimed that Liverpool controlled the first 35 minutes but if this might have been true territorially it had nothing to do with the vital matter of genuine creativity around the midfield. Here, with the subtly drifting Rosicky and the dogged Hleb compensating more than adequately for the absent, suspended Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal always had a profound edge.

The black-and-white verdict was that Liverpool had laid down a barrage but Arsenal had come up with the perfect counter-attack: three shots, three goals. It was not as simple as that. Arsenal won not just out of jet-heeled opportunism - though that was the basis of Henry's reincarnation when he pounced on Jamie Carragher's error - but an infinitely greater capacity to launch coherent and finely pitched attack.

For Benitez the most alarming aspect of his suddenly dwindling possibilities of landing a third successive major trophy in as many seasons must have been the failures of Gerrard and Alonso to produce either serious bite or momentum. For Alonso, such a powerful moral force in Liverpool's best days over the past few years, there was the additional shame of a yellow card for diving. It wasn't the clearest case of such deceit, but the re-runs vindicated the referee Steve Bennett. There was contact from Gilberto, but the evidence suggested it was contrived. The rest of the afternoon was spent, unavailingly, in search of an authentic Alonso.

While Arsenal blocked and hooked with equal facility, Liverpool merely blustered. Dirk Kuyt's persistence was rewarded when he flicked home a header from Peter Crouch in the 71st minute, but the hope this conjured was wiped away beyond recall when Henry ran down Carragher, gained control of a ball that should already have been sent to the upper tiers by the stalwart defender and raced on to beat Jerzy Dudek with absolute conviction.

Henry had been flitting around the margins of most of the action but here was a dramatic announcement of old powers. He said: "I'm just getting back to 100 per cent, even though I'm not quite there yet. I have had two games and this one was really hard."

It seemed rather less than that when he struck down Liverpool with all the authority he had promised when he ran on to the field with his arms raised. This was just a glimpse of the old Henry. It was enough, however, to blind a Liverpool team soon to face the glare of Ronaldinho's Barcelona - and intensify Benitez's most fervent New Year's resolution. It is surely to get his hands on rather more than £10m.

Goals: Rosicky (37) 0-1; Rosicky (45) 0-2; Kuyt (71) 1-2; Henry (84) 1-3.

Liverpool (4-4-2) Dudek; Finnan, Carragher, Agger, Riise (Aurelio, 60); Pennant, Gerrard, Alonso, Garcia; Crouch, Kuyt. Substitutes not used: Reina (gk), Hyypia, Gonzalez, Bellamy.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Almunia; Eboué (Hoyte, 66), Touré, Senderos, Clichy; Hleb, Gilberto, Flamini, Rosicky; Henry (Walcott, 88), Van Persie (Baptista, 72). Substitutes not used: Poom (gk), Djourou.

Referee: S Bennett (Kent).

Booked: Liverpool Alonso; Arsenal Senderos, Clichy, Eboué.

Man of the match: Rosicky.

Attendance: 43,619.

* Reports suggest Arsenal are listening to offers for their Swedish winger, Freddie Ljungberg, with Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool among the clubs supposed to have registered an interest. Ljungberg, who is out with a hamstring injury, is reported to be upset at the claims. Injury has restricted him to 54 appearances in the past 18 months.

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