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Arsenal show a steely side

THE ONLY predictable thing about this match was the self-referential chants heard at the end. Arsenal scrapped their way to a hard-fought, if not downright ugly win, which, while not quite putting them back into the title race, certainly gives them the edge in the battle for third place.

Given the torrid time that they have endured over the past fortnight a return of "1-0 to the Arsenal" will do nicely right now.

Even George Graham has found fault with Arsene Wenger in recent weeks, but this was a performance and a result to give the former manager cause to smile. Arsenal were woeful for long spells against a side of deeply limited ambition, but somehow found a way to win, creating increasing numbers of chances in the second half until Abou Diaby finally took one in the 72nd minute. The goal itself was a scrappy affair, with Nicklas Bendtner miscontrolling the ball to Tomas Rosicky, who crossed from the right for Diaby to head in. As a firm riposte to Michael Ballack's one-dimensional claims it could not have been bettered.

Ballack cannot have spent much time studying Wenger's team selections, whose only recurring feature is their duplicity. A day after lamenting that Bendtner was nowhere near fit enough to begin a game, Wenger handed the Denmark striker his first start since October.

A fortnight ago Wenger had revealed that Sol Campbell would make his first Premier League start for the club in five years against Manchester United, only for Thomas Vermaelen to make a Lazarus-like comeback to take his place against the champions. So it says much for the Frenchman's reputation that we are surprised by this deception.

Theo Walcott was dropped to make way for Bendtner, marking the moment at which his season reached crisis point.

Limped

The England international has started only five Premier League matches this season -- in which he has made minimal impact -- and may not get many more opportunities to impress. Fabio Capello would love to include him in his squad for the friendly international against Egypt next month, but such a selection can hardly be justified given Walcott's form and fitness. After spending the 2006 World Cup as a star-struck teenager, Walcott may be even farther removed from the centre of the tournament this time.

Walcott's plight is such that he was overlooked in favour of Rosicky when Samir Nasri limped off in the 34th minute, although Arsenal had been so poor up to that point that spectators could have been forgiven for thinking the substitution was tactical.

The selection by Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez was altogether more straightforward, with Martin Skrtel replacing the suspended Sotirios Kyrgiakos from the side victorious in last weekend's Merseyside derby in a team set up to play on the counter-attack.

The first opportunity fell to Liverpool, with Arsenal's statuesque defence again letting them down. Steven Gerrard's fifth-minute free kick sailed the width of the penalty area, with Manuel Almunia eventually making a scrambled save from Skrtel.

Rather more by good fortune than good play, Arsenal dragged themselves into the contest, although their customary fluency remained conspicuous by its absence. Cesc Fabregas did his best to grab the game by the scruff of the neck, but it was not a vintage performance. The Spain midfield player got into a good position to deliver a cross that William Gallas headed over and produced the moment of the match with a magnificent run just before half-time, only to shoot straight at Pepe Reina.

As is often the way, the best of the limited chances on offer fell to the player most determined to make an impression, Bendtner got ahead of Daniel Agger in the 25th minute, but lacked the pace to leave him behind, and when the ball came back to him via a cross by Andrey Arshavin moments later, he could only blast it over the bar.

Arsenal's faltering season had been spectacularly revived by Wenger's half-time team-talk in the reverse fixture at Anfield in December, and while the impact of the manager's words was not as dramatic last night a more determined side emerged after the interval.

Dispossess

They needed a brilliantly timed tackle from William Gallas to keep them on level terms, however, with the France defender's outstretched leg just enough to dispossess David Ngog as he took advantage of Gerrard's through-ball to bear down on goal in the 53rd minute. For all his faults, Wenger would be foolish to dispense with Gallas lightly.

After that, it was all Arsenal, but the breakthrough took some time in coming. The best chance fell to Rosicky only 20 seconds later after a brilliant ball from Arshavin, but the Czech Republic international's touch deserted him as Reina was horribly exposed.

Rosicky appeared determined to make amends for his miss as he went close with long-range shots on several occasions and eventually did so with the telling cross for Diaby.

It was not the sort of goal that Wenger has devoted his life to creating, but will have given him as much pleasure as any flowing passing move.

Who says Arsenal have only one way of playing?


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