Fourteen points, and counting. That is how far Liverpool are adrift of Manchester United this morning with the season not yet a third run. With Chelsea also 11 points distant, the club which once cruised to championships as if by right are again reduced to playing for the cups and a Champions' League placing.
Arsenal, by virtue of this facile victory, can still hope to be in contention. They have moved up to third, still 10 and seven points respectively behind the leading two, but with a game in hand. "If we keep going like we did this afternoon then I think we can win this Premiership," said Kolo Touré, who, along with Mathieu Flamini and William Gallas, were the Gunners' improbable scorers as Liverpool suffered their fifth successive Premiership away defeat.
Once again, Rafael Benitez exiled Steven Gerrard to the right flank, at least until the game was beyond his team. Given the absence through injury of Mohamed Sissoko this must have come as a major disappointment to the club captain. He cut a peripheral figure and, after the third goal was conceded, conducted a furious on-pitch argument with John Arne Riise. Benitez, as is his wont, dodged the issue when questioned but effectively admitted he was wrong to prefer Boudewijn Zenden in the
centre when, an hour in, he moved both men. "Steven was playing in the middle for part of the second half and we didn't create many chances," said the manager. "We need to improve as a team and not think about one or two players."
Liverpool did hold their own for 40 minutes, working hard to deny Arsenal space and making two chances. Dirk Kuyt chipped wide on 10 minutes after Pepe Reina's long kick had fallen to him. Zenden drove over in the 27th-minute following a cleverly worked free-kick. That one chance was a set-piece, and the other a "route one" move, was, however, instructive. Liverpool have only scored once on their League travels this season, from the penalty spot against Sheffield United on the opening day, and it was not hard to understand why.
Thus, as has become the pattern at the Emirates, it became a case of whether Arsenal could pierce a blanket defence before conceding a sucker punch. Unlike against Aston Villa, Middlesbrough, and Everton, they could. Five minutes before the break, Alex Hleb dribbled in from the right flank for the umpteenth time. This time his reverse pass found Cesc Fabregas sneaking behind the cover and Flamini got in front of Jamie Carragher to turn in the Spaniard's cross.
Ten minutes after the resumption it was game over. Thierry Henry and Fabregas combined to feed Robin van Persie. He got the ball stuck between his feet but Liverpool reacted so slowly he was still able to release Touré who had run, untracked, for 40 yards. The Ivorian slid the ball between Reina's legs like a consummate striker.
Belatedly, Benitez withdrew the anonymous Mark Gonzalez, switched Zenden to the left, moved Gerrard into the centre, and introduced Jermaine Pennant. It made little difference. Although Gerrard was able to get into a shooting position, having one effort deflected just over, any chance of a comeback was extinguished when shambolic marking allowed Gallas a free header from Van Persie's corner. As Gallas celebrated with the imaginary cigar routine, Gerrard and Riise, who had both been marking Henry, argued vehemently, Gerrard throwing his sweatband to the floor. A sign of passion? Or disenchantment?
Liverpool were unfortunate not to have given the scoreline a greater respectability when Bellamy headed in from Gerrard's cross-shot late on following good work by Pennant. The linesman, not appreciating Gaël Clichy was playing him onside, flagged Bellamy. But it could have been worse for, with three minutes left, Emmanuel Adebayor stole the ball off Carragher to break away with only Reina to beat. Fortunately for Liverpool, the Togolese striker's finishing was not as clinical as Touré's.
Benitez admitted the team's away record was "not good enough". He could hardly suggest otherwise. Significantly, he added: "We need to improve away from home. We want to improve. We need to show character."
Winning the Champions' League and the FA Cup has bought Benitez a lot of time, and deservedly so, but the title remains the holy grail on Merseyside. The 18-times champions remain marooned in mid-table, behind Everton and sandwiched between Fulham and Wigan. Noel White, the director who broke ranks to criticise Benitez recently, and lost his place on the board as a result, remains a lone voice but many more capitulations like this and he will be echoed.
Goals: Flamini (40) 1-0; Touré (55) 2-0; Gallas (79) 3-0.
Arsenal (4-1-4-1): Almunia; Eboué, Touré, Gallas, Clichy; Gilberto Silva; Hleb, Fabregas, Flamini, Van Persie (Adebayor, 85); Henry. Substitutes not used: Poom (gk), Senderos, Walcott, Hoyte.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia (Agger, 81), Riise; Gerrard, Xabi Alonso, Zenden, Gonzalez (Pennant, 61); Kuyt, Crouch (Bellamy, 70). Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Warnock.
Referee: M Clattenberg (Tyne & Wear).
Booked: Arsenal Van Persie; Liverpool Carragher, Xabi Alonso, Pennant.
Man of the match: Touré.
Attendance: 60,110.Reuse content