Liverpool shattered by Arshavin

Liverpool 1 Arsenal 2: Arsenal concede first but surge home on the back of glorious strike by Russian forward
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The Independent Football

Of all the games for Xabi Alonso to turn up for in the Anfield directors' box like the ghost of Christmas past, this was one afternoon when Rafael Benitez required no further evidence of how far his side have drifted from the promise of last season.

The man from Real Madrid was given a warm round of applause by the fans in the Main Stand who spotted him at the start of the game, which was rather more than they were willing to grant their own team by the final whistle. Liverpool were beaten by a moment of brilliance from Andrei Arshavin, the man who scored four goals in this fixture last season, and this game was another low in their wretched tail-spinning season.

In the second half Benitez's team were, as Malcolm Tucker might say, an omni-shambles; a team incapable of lifting themselves from the terrible run of results that are engulfing them. They have won only once in their last six league games and in the second half they did most of the opposition's hard work themselves, not least when Glen Johnson's own goal on 50 minutes minutes levelled the score.

Somehow they lost to an Arsenal team without a recognisable centre-forward who were so poor in the first half that even Arsène Wenger conspired to lose his temper at half-time. And for Benitez, the excuses are running thin because this was arguably his first-choice XI, with Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard starting together and only Alberto Aquilani on the bench – although no one really knows where he fits in.

The Arsenal supporters who suddenly found their voice after Johnson's own goal sang "that's why you're on Channel Five", in reference to the embarrassment of Liverpool's participation in the Europa League. But it is not European competition this season that Liverpool must fear; it is where they will be next season. They are five points off Aston Villa in the last of the four Champions League places and 13 behind the leaders Chelsea.

Benitez said the collapse was indicative of a team whose confidence deserted them at the first sign of trouble. That was a damning verdict from a manager who prefers to underplay suggestions of basic flaws among his players. "It's not a question of quality, it's a question of confidence," he said, as if that were the lesser of two evils.

Those who were at Anfield yesterday may wish to disagree, especially as they watched their side virtually capitulate with more than 30 minutes left in the game. Benitez's team had looked so powerful and direct in a first half in which Arsenal looked ragged. But they failed to respond when the tide turned.

Dirk Kuyt's opening goal was not pretty but it was symbolic of the vulnerability at the heart of most of what Arsenal had done in the first half. Manuel Almunia was spooked by Lucas Leiva's touch on Fabio Aurelio's free-kick and the Arsenal keeper palmed his header straight to Kuyt, who took a touch before he scored.

The lead was deserved at the time for Liverpool, who, even Wenger later admitted, dominated the first half. Torres, starting a game for the first time since 4 November, broke with Gerrard on 12 minutes and between them they carved a passage through the middle of Arsenal, only for Torres to hit a lame shot straight at Almunia.

It could have been worse for Arsenal if the referee Howard Webb had decided that a challenge from the otherwise excellent William Gallas on Gerrard after 13 minutes was sufficiently reckless to be worthy of a penalty. Gerrard seemed to have played the ball too far ahead of him but there was no doubt that Gallas brought him down after the ball had gone.

Benitez regarded it as "100 per cent" a penalty but, to his credit, he did not dwell too long on this in the post-match analysis, preferring to acknowledge Liverpool's other shortcomings. "It doesn't matter if the ball is away from him in the box," he said. "A foul is a foul and that's a penalty. These decisions can make a massive difference."

It started to go wrong for Liverpool just after half-time when Wenger's side at last got behind them. The equaliser was an all-round defensive disaster. Samir Nasri's cross from the right, his first serious contribution to the game, deflected off Jamie Carragher, wrong-footed Pepe Reina and was toed into the net by Johnson, who ran on to it before he could react properly.

There was little case for saying Arsenal deserved the goal, but when it had been created so willingly for them by their opponents it was hard to feel much sympathy. The second Arsenal goal fell into a different category: that one was simply brilliant.

The cross from the right side from Cesc Fabregas, who endured a desperate first half, looked fanciful given its targets were the pocket-sized Theo Walcott and Arshavin. But Walcott got the flick above Carragher and when it dropped Johnson failed to control the ball. Arshavin took a touch inside and with his injured right foot cracked a shot in off Reina's right post.

It was over in the blink of an eye, a goal that caught everyone in the stadium out with the speed and aggression of its execution. Arshavin ran away from the Anfield Road end, half- occupied by Arsenal fans and towards Wenger on the touchline. When he finally got there for an awkward pat on the back, the pair looked like a father and his exuberant little boy.

It was quite shocking how little Liverpool offered after that, even with the introduction of Aquilani. Benitez's explanation that the confidence had simply gone was obvious enough for all to see; it is how he stops a team in seventh place from falling even further that is the difficult part.

Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Johnson (Degen, 82), Carragher, Agger, Aurelio; Mascherano (Aquilani, 65), Lucas; Kuyt, Gerrard, Benayoun (Ngog, 79); Torres. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Insua, Skrtel, Dossena.

Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Almunia; Sagna, Gallas, Vermaelen, Traoré (Silvestre, 87); Fabregas, Song; Walcott (Diaby, 69), Denilson, Nasri; Arshavin (Ramsey, 90). Substitutes not used: Fabianski (gk), Eduardo, Vela, Wilshere.

Referee: H Webb (South Yorkshire).

Booked: Liverpool Aurelio, Mascherano, Lucas; Arsenal Denilson, Arshavin, Nasri.

Man of the match: Gallas.

Attendance: 43,853.