The old wisdom said that Arsène Wenger's brilliant, ambitious young team would face their day of reckoning at Anfield and there learn a clue to their future this season. The old wisdom, however, is being torn up by an Arsenal side who can play football from the gods but would have left Liverpool without a point yesterday were it not for Cesc Fabregas's late equaliser.
It was a fabulous match in which Liverpool were cast as the toilers in contrast to Wenger's side of artists, but one in which Steven Gerrard's seventh-minute goal was very nearly enough to win the game. At times Arsenal played football of such a standard that you needed to glance up at the scoreboard to remind yourself they were still actually one goal down. The stifled gasps of admiration from the home crowd towards their visitors' passing game told you that they were thinking the same thing too.
The big test for Arsenal will now be Saturday at the Emirates when they face a Manchester United team who also play what Wenger himself describes as his side's "risky, technical" game. Some match that promises to be. Arsenal are back on top of the Premier League, if only on goals scored, and they are such an attraction that they even tempted Sir Alex Ferguson to enter enemy territory yesterday – he watched grim-faced from the stands.
For Rafa Benitez's side the future is less clear, especially when their manager picks a line-up as bewildering as this one with Dirk Kuyt and Andriy Voronin as de facto wingers. Fernando Torres, back after two games out with an abductor muscle problem, was substituted at half-time and did not seem at all fit. Back after eight games out, Xabi Alonso hobbled off with more problems with his injured metatarsal. And the 4-3-3 formation did nothing to suggest Benitez is any closer to a solution.
In contrast, Wenger was much more straightforward about how his side played "without the handbrake" and with the kind of reckless attacking spirit that seems alien to Benitez. "During the game, I didn't know whether we would win or lose," Wenger said. "I felt we played without restrictions and we were faithful to the combinations and the way we play. But I am pleased with the performance and I cannot fault the attitude of the team."
That attitude manifests itself in passing of the highest quality, at speed and under pressure and never more so than when Alexander Hleb slipped a ball of astounding quality through to Fabregas for the equaliser. The Belarusian has come to epitomise the poise of this Arsenal side, a player who seems to regard losing possession as anathema. Liverpool were symbolised by less subtle, more resilient qualities, such as the will of Jamie Carragher and Gerrard to keep their side in the game.
It made for an intriguing game into which Peter Crouch was sent at half-time after the withdrawal of Torres and gave his side a far greater cutting edge than before. These days the England striker is forced to wait in expectation for first-team chances the same way that small Italian towns hope for minor religious miracles. He is definitively on the outside of Benitez's masterplan – whatever that is – although, in his moment of need, the Liverpool manager turned to Crouch and was not let down.
Carragher put it best when he admitted in his post-match Sky interview that sometimes the movement of this Arsenal team makes it confusing as to which position each player is supposed to be playing in. Even after Gerrard struck a seventh-minute free-kick past Manuel Almunia you could see what he meant. It was the Arsenal support who cottoned on to their opponents' discomfort first, mocking every desperate Liverpool clearance, which was in sharp contrast to their own crisp passing.
Fortuitously for Benitez, he has one of the most reliable get-out-of-jail cards in English football: the ability of Gerrard to change a game in an instant. The Liverpool captain gave him that with his goal. Gerrard had already seen one shot saved when Fabregas gave away a free-kick on the edge of the area with a late tackle on Alonso. Kuyt rolled the ball to Gerrard and he struck a low shot through the Arsenal wall that beat Almunia at his right post.
A goal ahead but it was no vindication for Benitez's bizarre attacking line-up, which asked Voronin and Kuyt to play like wingers without the benefit of any pace between them. Arsenal looked more like the team in the lead, although their weak link was Emmanuel Adebayor, whose touch seemed unsubtle and clunky compared to that of his team-mates. His miscontrol allowed Pepe Reina to block an early effort.
Gerrard drew a brilliant save out of Almunia in the 28th minute, but there was precious little from a patently unfit Torres, who did not look remotely interested anyway. When Crouch came on at the start of the second half there was suddenly more about Liverpool as well. They buzzed a lot more purposefully and Crouch lashed in a low shot on 51 minutes that Almunia pushed away.
The chances came for Arsenal, too. Emmanuel Eboué broke down the right wing and struck Reina's post, the ball fell to Fabregas in the area but he could not control his shot with the goal open. Later Fabregas himself struck the post and when the rebound fell to substitute Niklas Bendtner he, too, missed the target. Voronin played in Crouch, who shot wide. Then the Englishman flicked a ball into Gerrard's path and he was only stopped by William Gallas's tackle.
With Alonso off and Alvaro Arbeloa deputising badly, Fabregas was allowed to run unchecked to put in his 10th goal of the season. Benitez said later that his plan had been to hit Arsenal on the counter-attack, which seems remarkably unambitious for a team with faint hopes of the title themselves. The Liverpool manager could never have hoped that his team's main strengths would have been the more prosaic English qualities of spirit and resistance – unfortunately that is all you have left if you cannot pass the ball like Wenger's Arsenal.
Goals: Gerrard (7) 1-0; Fabregas (80) 1-1.
Liverpool (4-2-1-3): Reina; Finnan, Hyypia, Carragher, Riise; Alonso (Arbeola, 68), Mascherano; Gerrard; Kuyt, Torres (Crouch, h-t), Voronin (Benayoun, 65). Substitutes not used: Itandje (gk), Babel.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Almunia; Sagna, Touré, Gallas, Clichy (Gilberto, 75); Eboué (Bendtner, 75), Fabregas, Flamini, Rosicky (Walcott, 66); Hleb, Adebayor. Substitutes not used: Lehmann (gk), Diarra.
Referee: H Webb (Yorkshire).
Booked: Liverpool Voronin, Mascherano, Carragher. Arsenal Rosicky.
Man of the match: Hleb.
Attendance: 44, 122.
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