Thursday 14 December 2017

Classy Arsenal beat Reds and show title credentials

Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey (R) celebrates after scoring a wonder goal against Liverpool
Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey (R) celebrates after scoring a wonder goal against Liverpool

Dion Fanning at the Emirates

Arsenal moved five points clear at the top of the table as they beat Liverpool at the Emirates last night. In a chaotic season, they produced a performance which should ensure they are considered title challengers.

As they sit at the top of the table, this would normally be considered self-evident.

But this is no normal season. The two teams met yesterday with the implicit understanding that, despite occupying the top two places by the time the game began, one would be dismissed as genuine contenders with defeat.

Liverpool’s disjointed performance may be seen as more significant given time. Brendan Rodgers has displayed a welcome pragmatism this season, shaping a side that can win when playing badly but the structural weaknesses, especially in midfield were exposed against an Arsenal side with abundant talent in that area.

Mikel Arteta was outstanding, dominating through intelligence and precision against a Liverpool side that too often resorted to hope.

Goals from Santi Cazorla and, inevitably, Aaron Ramsey brought the points but Wenger will also be encouraged by the team’s performance

Liverpool’s hope was maintained in the early exchanges as they started with purpose. Despite this bright start, Arsenal presented the more cohesive threat with Olivier Giroud, a straightforward presence at the point of their attack which allowed the fluid midfield to play around him.

Arsenal found that they could get through the centre of Liverpool’s midfield and defence. Their slick passing bewildered the clumsier feet of Lucas and Steven Gerrard and the baffled Liverpool defence.

There had been much anxiety among Liverpool fans when Jon Flanagan was named as one of their five defenders with Glen Johnson ruled out with injury.

Yet he was the least of their problems as Liverpool looked like they could do with a few more in defence as Cazorla and Mesut Ozil drifted in front of them.

Arsenal’s midfield was dominant too with Ramsey breaking forward when he could and Arteta showing a nous lacking in Liverpool’s.

Liverpool’s strength was in attack as they tried to release Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge who gave glimpses of what they could do, but they were fleeting as they were stranded from their team-mates for much of the game.

They were men apart in every sense as they found themselves, once the bright start was over, increasingly distant from the rest of the team.

In those early minutes, Liverpool were alive and if Jordan Henderson had done better when he found himself through on goal than shoot timidly then they might have progressed.

Arsenal had only briefly threatened in the opening 20 minutes but once Cazorla put them ahead, they came alive.

It was a goal that demonstrated Arsenal’s strengths and Liverpool’s weaknesses. The first weakness was Aly Cissokho at left-back. Bacary Sagna glided by him, delivering a cross which Cazorla headed against the post. It said much for the constant alertness of the Arsenal side that Cazorla picked up the rebound to finish but it didn’t say much for Liverpool’s powers of concentration.

From that moment, they found weaknesses. Henderson and Gerrard lost the ball foolishly and Cazorla shot at Simon Mignolet who also saved from Ramsey after Arsenal skipped through the centre of Liverpool’s team too easily.

When Suarez and Sturridge could link up, they were denied by poor refereeing. Sagna dragged down Suarez and his quick free-kick moved from Sturridge to Henderson who was free in the box, but referee Martin Atkinson brought play back to book Sagna.

Liverpool were frustrated but they were the source of their own problems. As the game went on, they embarked on a process in which they demonstrated their tactical fluidity, all of which was irrelevant if they couldn’t keep the ball.

Philippe Coutinho replaced the hapless Cissokho at half time as Liverpool lost one of their defenders. They lost another when Flanagan was replaced by Victor Moses as Liverpool chased the game after Arsenal’s second.

Again Rodgers’ side had started with some purpose before the flaws in the side became apparent against a side as strong in midfield as Arsenal. There was a sense of inevitability about Arsenal’s second goal as the pressure built, they pushed Liverpool back and the vulnerabilities became more apparent.

Giroud had two good chances and should have scored with the first when Kolo Toure hit a careless pass in the general direction of Martin Skrtel. Giroud picked it up and tried to chip Mignolet but put it wide. Moments later, he was close again as he stretched for a Cazorla pass but couldn’t get power into the shot.

It didn’t matter when Ozil picked up the ball on the right and picked out Ramsey. His shot from 20 yards drifted over Mignolet and into the net and ensured that Arsenal would be top of the league.

Liverpool had to chase the game which was unfortunate given their lack of control to begin with.

In the moments after Liverpool’s second change, Suarez went close as he shaved the bar with a shot. He deserved more for his endless work-rate and when he ran from 40 yards in the final minutes and shot wide only Sturridge, who was waiting in the box, felt he wasn’t entitled to shoot.

Arsenal asserted their dominance with Kieran Gibbs, who picked up another injury, and Ozil. They were looking for a third to assert their supremacy but they had already asserted their title credentials.

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