Advantage United as Liverpool stumble
Liverpool 4 Arsenal 4
Twenty years have passed since the last time Arsenal came to Anfield and wrecked the locals' title dream but the drama, the pain, the improbable nature of the football were equal to it last night. It was Andrei Arshavin's night, it was Fernando Torres' night and then – when the shouting was done – it was clear that really it was Sir Alex Ferguson's night.
Rafael Benitez's side are stumbling, albeit in the most spectacular fashion, and the title is being gradually ceded to Manchester United, who will take a three-point lead if they beat Portsmouth tonight. When Arsenal pulled off that famous smash and grab here in 1989 Liverpool, then the dominant force in English football, began to crumble; two decades on and it would seem that the dominant force in English football is about to hold strong for another season.
But what a night, and what a match. Arshavin's four goals were stunning, four breathtaking finishes and they represented the only four clear-cut chances that Arsenal had all night. Yossi Benayoun's 93rd-minute equaliser was the last significant act in another conflagration of dodgy defences and swashbuckling strikers. Arshavin stole the show but Torres, with two goals of his own, was a giant, leading Liverpool in the absence of the injured Steven Gerrard.
Just eight days ago, Benitez's side played out another eight-goal extravaganza against Chelsea in the Champions League and last night they did it all over again. Collapsing in defence and then re-establishing themselves in attack, this was not a performance that could be described as in any way compatible with the Benitez creed. Yet as they get nearer to the end of the season, so they seem to become more reckless: they have scored 12 goals in the last three games of which none has featured Gerrard.
From the Sky Sports studio, the Liverpool captain said he felt as tired watching this game as he usually did after playing in one. It was just one of those nights. It might well be remembered as the occasion that the brilliant Arshavin announced himself in English football but it was also another match in which Liverpool cut free in attack and abandoned all those Benitez principles of sound defence.
"Big mistakes" was how the Liverpool manager described the night that Liverpool lost their heads at the back. The guilty men were the full-backs Fabio Aurelio and Alvaro Arbeloa, whose mistakes played a major role in Arshavin's first three goals. Apart from that, there was not a save from Pepe Reina that was worth noting down, but when he did find himself up against the Russian he never got close to stopping him.
Anfield blamed the referee, Howard Webb, for much of their misery, especially in the first half that yielded just one of the eight goals in this game. But in reality the referee called this one right; indeed, the most serious complaint would have come from Arsenal who had a Nicklas Bendtner goal disallowed for offside that replays showed was legitimate.
What Liverpool can take from this game is more evidence of an unbreakable team spirit that pulled them back into the game no matter how many times they looked out of it. They also have the hope that Arsène Wenger's team might turn in another performance like this when they visit Old Trafford on 16 May in the penultimate game of the season. Wenger promised as much at the end of the game.
Nights like these make you wonder whether Wenger's legacy at Arsenal is heading for triumph or catastrophe. Arshavin was anonymous before his first goal, Cesc Fabregas was peripheral for most of the evening and Bendtner compared very unfavourably to Torres. The less said about Bacary Sagna the better. Yet Arsenal stopped in their tracks a Liverpool team that is playing the football of its life.
The goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski, such a liability in Saturday's FA Cup semi-final, was excellent in the first half, keeping the dominant Torres and Benayoun at bay, although he could not prevent both of them scoring twice after the break. Arshavin scored from Fabregas's cross on 36 minutes after a bad ball from Aurelio put Javier Mascherano under pressure and Samir Nasri stole possession.
Torres' performance was, however, irresistible and his first goal was just a matter of time. He got it in the 49th minute when Sagna's bad clearance reached Kuyt and he clipped in a cross. Torres, twisting in mid-air, headed the ball into the corner. Benayoun forced in the second from a Kuyt cross after another defensive disaster for Arsenal. There was no sign of the impending Liverpool collapse but Arshavin floored them with two goals in three devastating minutes.
First Arbeloa presented the Russian with the ball to score his second in the 70th minute; Arshavin's third, to make it 3-2, came courtesy of a wretched clearance by Aurelio. Jamie Carragher was outstanding again in the centre of defence but there was not much he could do as the full-backs around him malfunctioned. Torres improvised again to turn and shoot after Albert Riera's pass to make it 3-3.
And then the endgame. Theo Walcott, on as a substitute, raced clear on the counter-attack to play in Arshavin, whose shot thudded past Reina to make it 4-3. Liverpool responded magnificently. A disenchanted Anfield began to empty, but those who left early missed the best bit. It might have been a scrappy equaliser for Benayoun from Mascherano's cross, but it meant a great deal. Wenger was so angry he kicked the ball straight at Arbeloa before the restart and could only just bring himself to apologise. It was a comical moment on a night that otherwise felt deadly serious. If this is Liverpool's last stand in the title race then it was a glorious way for them to go, but after a game such as this it is not hard to convince yourself that there are a few surprises left in this season.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Arbeloa, Carragher, Agger, Aurelio; Mascherano, Alonso; Benayoun, Kuyt (El Zhar, 86), Riera (Babel, 74); Torres. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Dossena, Lucas, Ngog, Skrtel.
Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Fabianski; Sagna, Touré, Silvestre, Gibbs; Nasri, Song, Denilson (Walcott, 65), Arshavin; Fabregas; Bendtner (Diaby, 90). Substitutes not used: Mannone (gk), Eduardo, Vela, Ramsey, Eboué.
Referee: H Webb (South Yorkshire).
Booked: Arsenal Sagna.
Man for man marking
Not at fault for goals from close range and was quick off his line for clearances 6/10
Got forward on occasion but at fault for Arshavin's second goal as he dithered 6
Early foul on Fabregas, kept Bendtner quiet but caught ball-watching for Arsenal third 6
Danish central defender solid but did not close down Arshavin for his second 6
Looked for a long ball out of defence a little too often but was reliable at left-back 6
Two goals reward for being one of Liverpool's best players on the night 8
Comfortable until caught in possession and let Arshavin get too close 6
Steady in central midfield and always delivered dangerous balls from set pieces 6
Best contribution came as he set up Torres for Liverpool's third before being taken off 5
Most effective on right. Set up Torres' first goal and crossed again for Benayoun goal 7
Twice brought saves from 20 yards and scored two excellent goals 8
Ryan Babel: not enough time for impact 5; Nabil El Zhar: powerful shot late on 5
Could do nothing about the first two Liverpool goals but should have kept out the third 6/10
Lacked sharpness after his recent virus. Poor clearance led to Torres goal. Booked 5
After uncertain start this season was the steadiest player in a shaky back four 6
Went through back of Torres and got away with a foul on Kuyt, found the going hard 5
Uncertain distribution and unable to cope with Kuyt but cleared off line near end 5
Cleared off line at a corner with Kuyt homing in. Pass to Fabregas set up first goal 6
Game went on around him and the Cameroonian needs to improve to keep place 4
Unable to impose himself before winning ball and setting up Arshavin for his first goal 5
Bystander for just over an hour, showing that this sort of game is not for him just yet 4
Four goals, with the second and fourth the most memorable of an incredible evening 10
Displayed heavy touches when his team needed him to hold up the ball 4
Theo Walcott: set up the fourth with burst of pace 6; Abou Diaby: Time-wasting substitution 6
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