Sport Soccer

Thursday 23 March 2017

Reina's howler denies Hodgson perfect start

Late own goal and Cole dismissal fail to dampen a lifted mood at Anfield

Liverpool "a smallish club north of the M25''? You're having a laugh, Bruce Buck. The Chelsea chairman's tongue-in-cheek description of Joe Cole's new home looked even more ludicrous during this compelling afternoon's entertainment. Liverpool may have dropped points but they have gained momentum.

Cole was so keen to impress that he overdid the commitment and was dismissed for a reckless lunge on Laurent Koscielny.

It captures Liverpool's revived ambition under Roy Hodgson that an air of disappointment permeated the August corridors of Anfield afterwards. They had defended so superbly after Cole's expulsion just before the interval, making light of going down to 10 men.

As Arsenal built and built, weaving their pretty passing patterns around the box, Jamie Carragher led the resistance movement, making tackles and cajoling and organising his team-mates.

Daniel Agger similarly embodied the commitment, seeming to suffer double vision but insisting on returning to the fray.

With Steven Gerrard and Javier Mascherano anchoring diligently, Liverpool looked to be holding out for their 2000th league victory. The champagne was put back on ice as Liverpool froze in the 90th minute when Pepe Reina turned in Marouane Chamakh's header. Reina's aberration was met with disbelief.

Liverpool's 'keeper looked skywards for explanation, he held his head in his hands, and home players and fans alike shared his shock.

Reina does not make mistakes. He is Mr Reliable, a safe pair of hands, a one-man wall who had already frustrated Theo Walcott and Tomas Rosicky.

Even if the record books show that Reina has failed to keep a clean sheet against Arsenal in 12 attempts, the overwhelming reaction to his error was one of complete surprise.

Until Reina's rare lapse, the focus on Spanish goalkeepers was solely on Manuel Almunia, who had been caught out badly at the near post by David Ngog's strike as the second half unfolded. Arsene Wenger was coy afterwards, refusing to discuss the possibility of any new 'keepers coming in but a new No 1 is urgently required.

As Manchester City will not sell Shay Given to Arsenal, Fulham's Mark Schwarzer cannot arrive quickly enough.

The Australian will certainly be a more commanding presence than either Almunia or Lukasz Fabianski. At least Arsenal's defence has been strengthened by Koscielny, who looks a solid partner for Thomas Vermaelen, although he was dismissed late on for two cautions, probably harshly.

Up front, Chamakh needs time to pick up the pace of the Premier League, a process that should be accelerated when Robin van Persie, still regaining sharpness after the World Cup summer, slots in behind him. Chamakh, the straight-backed Moroccan from Bordeaux, showed enough decent touches to indicate Wenger has recruited well.

In front of the watching Fabio Capello, one of England's mooted likely lads, Jack Wilshere, demonstrated why he will require longer before being deemed ready for sustained international duty.

The midfielder has an intelligent way of letting the ball run across him, so opening up angles but he never imposed himself on a midfield jungle where such big beasts as Gerrard and Mascherano roam.

Occasionally resembling a small boy attempting to cross a busy road, Wilshere was even cautioned for a nasty, frustration-fuelled challenge on Mascherano.

Promise

Wilshere's promise is undeniable but Cesc Fabregas' return to midfield will certainly give Arsenal more direction.

Both Arsenal and Liverpool have every right to feel optimistic after this.

Coupled with judicious signings, Wenger's decision to commit to three more years is a cause for mass celebration at the Emirates, and some relief, as he could have walked into most clubs.

At Liverpool, Hodgson has reduced much of the tension that built up during the Rafael Benitez era.

Whatever annoyance Hodgson might have felt at the late dropping of two points, he can take encouragement at the energetic work of Milan Jovanovic, a left-sided force who gave Bacary Sagna a torrid time as the game began in the Merseyside sunshine.

Liverpool's defence looked more organised at set-pieces without Benitez's zonal system, while the England internationals were swiftly into their stride.

Glen Johnson unleashed a shot which Almunia tipped over, Carragher marshalled Liverpool's defence with typical authority, Gerrard sought to push back the excellent Samir Nasri, while also finding time to deliver a corner on to the head of Ngog only for Gael Clichy to clear off the line.

Arsenal saw more of the ball and the game looked theirs for the taking when Cole departed just before the break. Liverpool had other ideas, taking the lead almost immediately from the restart.

Hounded by Johnson and Dirk Kuyt, Wilshere gifted the ball to Mascherano, who calmly released Ngog. Almunia was too slow and Ngog's shot too hard.

Liverpool shone. Ngog almost added a second from a Gerrard free-kick.

Anfield was loving it, particularly when Fernando Torres began warming up.

The Kop prepared to bounce, to show its traditional welcome to their beloved Spanish No 9. Kuyt nutmegged Clichy. Mascherano blotted out Walcott. Anfield was seconds away from a round of "ole''.

Yet there is so much expertise in this side of Wenger's. Not a team blessed with leaders, Arsenal still kept pushing, kept looking to pick the lock of the Liverpool defence.

When Gerrard caught Chamakh, Walcott bent a brilliant free-kick around the wall and only the anticipation and athleticism of Reina protected Liverpool's lead.

The Spaniard then flung himself up, stretching out a right hand to flick over Rosicky's shot, a save that had Anfield gasping in admiration. But Rosicky's next delivery was met by Chamakh, whose effort hit the post and was inadvertently helped in by Reina.

So Hodgson was prevented from becoming the first Liverpool manager since 1892 to win his first three games. But a new chapter is being written in Liverpool's history. "Smallish club?'' No chance. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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