Riise helps Liverpool rediscover self-belief

Arsenal 1 Liverpool 1
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The Independent Football

The Championship is frequently compared to a marathon but the Tour de France, with its emphasis on endurance, teamwork and all-round ability, is a more appropriate metaphor. Especially given the Gallic influence on our game.

Yesterday, after a season in which the Premiership pack had rotated the lead as regularly as any peloton, the red jerseys of the perennial champions finally hit the front. The impact was immediate. Arsenal, kicking off at Highbury 10 minutes after Manchester United had won at Southampton to go top, could have become the fourth leaders of the weekend. Instead, they found lead in their legs and doubt in their minds.

The consequence was that, despite outplaying Liverpool for most of a disappointing match, they let slip another brace of home points. Liverpool, for their part, have now dropped 17 out of the last 24. The pair, Manchester United's most probable rivals, are now fourth and fifth. Of the other contenders, Leeds have half their squad either suspended or injured, Newcastle lack depth and Chelsea mental strength. Sir Alex Ferguson is thus once more sitting as high in the saddle as Lance Armstrong riding into Paris.

Of course, there is a long way to go and, for all Southampton's recent form, United's recovery has been on the back of an undemanding fixture list. Their attack may prompt many a sleepless night, but their defence only has their own supporters reaching for the Mogadon.

That is the encouragement for future opponents and an early one of these is Liverpool on Tuesday week. While the Anfield side continue to haemorrhage points there were signs, in the later stages of this match, that they have stemmed the outflow of confidence.

Much of that was down to the nature of their equaliser. Deservedly ahead through Freddie Ljungberg's 62nd-minute goal, Arsenal were showboating when Dietmar Hamann intercepted a pass intended by Robert Pires for Theirry Henry. He laid the ball off to John Arne Riise who passed to Patrik Berger midway inside his own half, then sprinted down the left flank. Berger fed Steven Gerrard who hit, first time with the outside of his boot, a 50-yard pass to Riise. With the inattentive Oleg Luzhny trailing in his wake, Riise ran on to shoot low into the corner.

Until then Liverpool, with the exception of Jerzy Dudek and Sami Hyypia, had been poor. Unable to hold possession for more than a few passes they were over-reliant on long but inaccurate balls to Nicolas Anelka and Michael Owen. Anelka, booed throughout, must have admired the sweet passing of Pires and Kanu pondered anew the wisdom of his exit from Highbury.

Riise's strike lifted a dead weight off Liverpool's shoulders and, in the final stages, there was a sense that a glimmer of light had appeared at the end of a dark tunnel of introspection. If they can survive Saturday's visit of Southampton without embarrassment they could yet acquit themselves well at Old Trafford. Anelka and Owen certainly have the pace to trouble Laurent Blanc and, given the relief that Gerrard exuded after his pass, they may even receive the service.

Arsenal's next challenge is at Leeds on Sunday, a fixture which may well add to both team's suspensions. Yesterday they were without three banned players: Ray Parlour, Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Ashley Cole. With Lauren departed for the African Nations' Cup (Kanu flew out last night) Arsenal bore an unfamiliar look on their defensive flanks. Supporters who recall George Graham's reign may have at last appreciated the symbolic nod to that era by the inclusion of five centre-backs.

Liverpool's lack of width meant this surfeit of stoppers was not, until Riise's strike, a problem defensively. But, going forward, the outlet provided by Lauren and Cole was missed while the fifth centre-back, Gilles Grimandi, was manifestly off the pace in midfield.

With Patrick Vieira unusually quiet, Arsenal's main threat came from Henry and their in-form wide players. Pires had drawn a foul from the harassed Jamie Carragher, from which Kanu headed just over, after six minutes. Henry then dropped a cross on to the bar and Ljungberg had a close-range shot blocked. After 20 minutes the breakthrough looked to have come as Ljungberg slipped behind the Liverpool defence and on to Kanu's pass. Rounding Dudek he might easily have gone down as contact appeared to be made, but he stayed on his feet only to drag the ball wide.

Though Kanu and Pires had shots later, Arsenal did not create another clear chance in the half. They were thus reduced to claiming a penalty when Upson's header, from a corner, struck Stéphane Henchoz on the arm. It would have been a harsh decision but, since the referee, Steve Dunn, had failed to see two handballs by Henchoz in the May FA Cup final, Arsenal felt they were due one.

It took the arrival of Dennis Bergkamp to change the match. Danny Murphy had just provided Liverpool's first significant effort, heading over from Riise's cross, when Bergkamp bamboozled Carragher as both contested Campbell's hoof into the stratosphere. The Dutchman fed Pires whose cross was tucked away by Ljungberg, a regular scourge of Liverpool.

"At last," breathed Highbury and they sat back to enjoy it as Arsenal looked to turn on the style. Wrong move. It was too early to uncork the champagne and Riise swiftly killed the celebrations. The fizz may have to remain on ice for some time.

Goals: Ljungberg (62) 1-0; Riise (69) 1-1.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Taylor 5; Luzhny 4 (Dixon, 84), Keown 5, Campbell 6, Upson 4; Ljungberg 7, Grimandi 3, Vieira 4, Pires 7 (Wiltord, 78); Kanu 6 (Bergkamp 6, 55), Henry 6. Substitutes not used: Edu, Wright (gk).

Liverpool (4-4-2): Dudek 7; Carragher 4, Hyppia 6, Henchoz 5, Riise 6; Murphy 4 (Heskey 5, 65), Gerrard 5, Hamann 6, Berger 4; Anelka 4 (McAllister, 84), Owen 4. Substitutes not used: Wright, Litmanen, Kirkland (gk).

Referee: S Dunn (Bristol) 6.

Booked: Arsenal: Vieira. Liverpool: Hamann.

Man of the match: Ljungberg.

Attendance: 38,132.

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