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Thursday 17 April 2014

Walcott bails out erratic Gunners

Arsenal 2 Liverpool 2

Jamie Carragher fails to prevent Theo Walcott from scoring Arsenal's equalising goal

Arsenal continue to serve up the sublime and the ridiculous.

Their defending was so poor for an hour, allowing Liverpool to score through Luis Suarez inevitably and Jordan Henderson surprisingly, before they played some exhilarating football, claiming a point through Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott.

Arsenal still need reinforcing and Andre Santos remains an accident in progress at left-back. Liverpool tired as the game wore on, struggling to maintain their phenomenal work-rate past the hour mark, but they will take heart from the growing understanding between Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, signs that Pepe Reina is returning to form and by the point. Liverpool fans also made a point, protesting against ticket prices.

Brendan Rodgers had demanded a stronger approach physically and mentally, and Liverpool had quickly set about pressing Arsenal, playing with energy and tactical discipline. Suarez was a persistent force down the left, linking well at times with the central Sturridge. Steven Gerrard and Lucas shielded the back four. Liverpool were so good for 60 minutes, before Arsenal raised themselves from the depth.

Until the hour mark, Liverpool looked more committed, better organised and they soon took the lead. As impressively as Liverpool attacked after five minutes, Arsenal's defending was as grotesque as a row of gargoyles. When Suarez moved down the left, his pass should still have been picked off, but Bacary Sagna slipped.

It set the tone for Arsenal's level of resistance. Glen Johnson crossed from the left and this time it was Thomas Vermaelen erring, failing to cut out the ball which continued on its merry way to Sturridge. Wojciech Szczesny did his job, saving the shot, but possession was immediately regained by Liverpool.

Henderson simply laid the ball off to Suarez, whose shot deflected in off Per Mertesacker.

Arsenal continued to offer gifts to their guests. They lost the ball high up the field, Henderson quickly finding Suarez. The Uruguayan lifted a clever diagonal pass over Vermaelen and into the path of Sturridge.

The England striker shot wide, but the danger continued. Szczesny decided to attempt some fancy footwork and almost presented Sturridge with a free shot at goal.

It got worse for Arsenal before it got better. Kieran Gibbs' wretched injury record continued and he hobbled away, replaced by Santos, which hardly lifted the home fans' hopes.

Arsenal had their chances to score in the first half. Walcott, so good after the break, tested Reina. Then Lukas Podolski crossed low from the left, the ball angled back to the onrushing Giroud, whose shot skewed over. Walcott then cut in from the left, curling in a shot athletically pushed away by Reina.

The Spanish 'keeper, patrolling his area, making some good saves, looked far more like the commanding presence of a few years back.

Reina then twisted his body to clear a goalbound interception from Gerrard of a Podolski cross. So weak against Oldham Athletic's 6ft 6in Matt Smith last Sunday, Liverpool were far more robust for an hour here. Jamie Carragher's return helped, the centre-half meeting a Walcott cross with a powerful clearing header.

Daniel Agger was doing well at both ends. First he met a Gerrard corner, eluding Szczesny with a determined leap and heading goalwards.

Arsenal were fortunate that Podolski was well placed on the line. Back down the other end, Agger nipped in front of Giroud to head clear.

Arsenal, for all their uncertainty, kept making chances but first Reina held Giroud's header, then Gerrard blocked a Santi Cazorla shot. Liverpool should have finished the half leading by two but Henderson tried to chip Szczesny and found the top of the net. He could have squared the ball to better-placed team-mates.

The second half was surreal at times, containing a mix of poor and inspired defending and some superlative attacking. Lucas and Carragher threw themselves in the way of Podolski thunderbolts. Frustration briefly flared in the stands, with two Arsenal fans being led out by stewards.

The home support's mood darkened further when Henderson cut into the box, gliding past Mertesacker and Santos, losing then regaining the ball before scoring with a low shot as Sagna slid in.

The Emirates was turning all querulous but suddenly the team clicked in to gear. Suddenly, they began performing closer to their potential.

Jack Wilshere lifted in a free-kick from the right and Giroud exploited momentary hesitancy in the Liverpool defence to head past Reina. One quickly became two, in elegant fashion.

Arsenal's equaliser was a gem. The ball journeyed from Sagna to Cazorla and into Giroud, whose lay-off to Walcott was perfect. The finish was unstoppable, Walcott driving the ball past Reina.

Occasional ugly moments broke up the flow. Gerrard launched himself towards Mertesacker, catching the German, and earning a booking. The football immediately reclaimed everyone's attention. Arsenal counter-attacked. Walcott fed Giroud, whose low shot was pushed away by Reina for a corner.

Cazorla curled in the ball from the flag towards Giroud, who headed over. Giroud was then cautioned for simulation; although there was the tiniest of contacts with Agger he went down with ludicrous ease.

Giroud still seemed distracted moments later when squandering a wonderful close-range opportunity, unable to make contact, and the ball carrying through to Reina.

As a compelling game tore through the four minutes of injury-time, more chaotic defending by Santos allowed Suarez a run at goal, but Szczesny saved. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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