Wenger hails 'fantastic night' as Diaby flies high

Arsenal 1 Liverpool 0

Arsene Wenger will remain to his dying day a manager who refuses to sacrifice his footballing principles on the altar of expediency but even he admitted last night all that mattered for Arsenal was to win.

It was not a pretty contest, as the importance of victory to both sides ensured the quality of the football on show was a purely a side issue, but its significance was acknowledged afterwards by the Arsenal manager after the setback of successive defeats to Manchester United and Chelsea.

"It is a massive result for us," Wenger said after Arsenal reduced the gap behind leaders Chelsea from nine points to six. "We had a massive disappointment in the last two games, but we showed great strength and solidarity against a good team. We refused to give up and came back with a convincing victory.

"It is a fantastic night for the club. Nobody imagines or realises how hard it is to play United, Chelsea and Liverpool on the trot with no time to recover. So to come back from Sunday's disappointment to get back to six points is great for us. The most important thing was to win the game."

Abou Diaby's 72nd-minute goal decided a drab contest in which Liverpool were content to sit back and contain the home side. With Lucas Leiva and Javier Mascherano employed as a pair of South American spoilers in front of the back four, the Merseysiders came to north London with the sole aim of pinching a point. However, unlike Chelsea three days earlier, they were unable to keep Wenger's side at bay.

The game sparked into life at the end, when the integrity of both captains was put in doubt by a trio of dubious incidents. Cesc Fabregas, the Arsenal captain, admitted to raising his hand to deflect a Steven Gerrard free kick in the fifth minute of second-half stoppage time. "I maybe touched it a little bit with my hand, but I would have touched it with my head anyway," he said.

Rafael Benitez, the Liverpool manager, was adamant his side had been denied a clear penalty, even though Fabregas had appeared to be inches outside his own penalty area when the offence took place. "It is a handball and has to be a penalty," he grumbled.

His own captain, Gerrard, however was also in the dock, accused of two counts of diving by the Arsenal management. He tumbled in the penalty area in the 77th minute, prompting the Arsenal assistant manager, Pat Rice, to mime a diving action to the fourth official. Gerrard also fell rather easily before the stoppage time free-kick that led to the Fabregas handball.

Wenger said: "Steven Gerrard, I don't feel, deserved the free-kick he got. Then Cesc touched the ball with his hand, but it could be argued it wasn't a free-kick originally. I'm sure you can make something of the controversy, but do it without me."

The controversial end to the match came in stark contrast to the largely disappointing fare that had preceded it for the previous 90 minutes. Liverpool's limited ambitions of denying Arsenal the space to play ensured this was to be no classic.

Andrei Arshavin was the pick of the Arsenal attackers until he was forced to leave the pitch midway through the second half with a thigh injury. The Russian set up Nicklas Bendtner in the first half but the Danish striker, who marked his return to the starting XI for the first time since October with a booking for diving, fired high into the crowd. Arshavin later put Tomas Rosicky in on goal, only for the Czech's shot to be parried over the bar by the Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina.

The visitors rarely threatened, thanks to some fine defending by Arsenal, for whom William Gallas was outstanding. One tackle by Gallas on Gerrard was timed immaculately. Ryan Babel, who came on as substitute, clipped the bar late in the game with a shot that was touched by Manuel Almunia.

The match was decided by a simple move. Fabregas broke from midfield and Bendtner worked the ball to Rosicky on the right flank. Liverpool's marking in the middle was non-existent and Diaby leapt unchallenged to head home the Czech midfielder's inviting cross. Wenger pumped his fists in delight as the Arsenal players jumped on Diaby, as much in relief as in celebration.

Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Almunia; Eboué, Gallas, Vermaelen, Clichy; Song, Diaby; Nasri (Rosicky, 34), Fabregas, Arshavin (Walcott, 67); Bendtner (Sagna, 81). Substitutes not used: Fabianski (gk), Denilson, Traoré, Campbell.

Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Carragher (Degen, 54), Skrtel, Agger, Insua; Mascherano, Lucas (Babel, 78); Kuyt, Gerrard, Rodriguez; Ngog. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Riera, Aurelio, Spearing, Kelly.

Referee: H Webb (Yorks).

Booked: Arsenal Clichy, Bendtner, Fabregas; Liverpool Rodriguez, Degen.

Man of the match: Gallas.

Attendance: 60,045.

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