Diaby fires up gunners
Arsenal get title mission back on track to dent Reds' Euro ambition
ARSENAL last night emerged from the cold snap that had threatened their season, warming their supporters with a vital victory at the Emirates. After a tedious first half, Abou Diaby scored midway through a hugely exciting second period to move Arsenal to within six points of leaders Chelsea.
And then there were three?
The game ended in acrimony, Liverpool complaining to referee Howard Webb that Steven Gerrard's free-kick had caught Cesc Fabregas' raised hand. It had, no question, and Liverpool returned north seething at the injustice and the sight of a table that shows Rafa Benitez's fourth-placed side only a goal clear of Manchester City, who have two games in hand.
The second half had been a vast improvement on the opening 45 minutes. Here was some energy, some accuracy, some sense of purpose. In a scoreless, largely shot-less, first half the main moments of note had come in late bookings for Gael Clichy's trip on Steven Gerrard and Maxi Rodriguez's studs-up challenge on Emmanuel Eboue.
There was an interesting substitution before the break: when Samir Nasri hobbled away, he was replaced by Tomas Rosicky, indicating that Theo Walcott is now third choice on the right. The half also saw an intriguing wardrobe malfunction moment, Jamie Carragher having to change his shirt, but that was the extent of the opening period's highlights. With at least 15 of the players on show destined for a summer at the World Cup, the standard of the first-half fare was surprisingly impoverished.
Following their travails against Manchester United and Chelsea, Arsenal had sought to get more of a central focus, with Nicklas Bendtner, making his first start since October, playing through the middle. Although the tall Dane did drop deep, he provided an outlet of sorts, even rising to flick a long ball from Manuel Almunia on to Diaby. In keeping with the half's plot-line, the move meandered into mediocrity.
Mistakes littered the half. Eboue whipped over one cross that threatened the spectators. Maxi hoisted a shot almost into the top tier. Emiliano Insua slid a pass across the centre to Song, an opponent. Fabregas laid the ball off -- to Dirk Kuyt. It was a comedy of errors with nobody laughing.
Just before the half-hour, Arsenal did create a fine chance. The move began when Andrey Arshavin slid the ball through Liverpool's defence for Bendtner, who was promptly ushered away from goal by Insua. Bendtner kept the move alive by transferring the ball right to Nasri. The Frenchman touched the ball inside to Arshavin, who controlled it while falling off-balance and somehow managed to squeeze it through to Bendtner. His finish was horrible, however.
Liverpool began to wake up. With Fernando Torres not expected to return for another three weeks, Liverpool continued with David Ngog as the spearhead of their 4-2-3-1 formation. Gerrard was in the hole, trying to escape Song, and occasionally moving wide. At one point, Gerrard turned into Stevie Heighway with a good run down the left and cross.
The second half hardly opened on the most promising note, Fabregas failing to clear the Liverpool wall with a free-kick. Suddenly, the game began to open up, began to produce some chances. Gerrard swept a superb pass behind Thomas Vermaelen and Ngog was off and running, charging into the Arsenal box, stopped only by a marvellous sliding tackle by William Gallas.
Back came Arsenal, Rosicky speeding into Liverpool's area until a clumsy touch presented the ball to Reina. Back came Arsenal again, Bendtner firing goalwards only for Daniel Agger to clear. Agger then accused his compatriot of diving, Bendtner dropping to the frozen tundra after the Liverpool centre-half had come close.
The beacons were lit, the street parties organised when the deadlock was broken in the 70th minute. Finally, Arsenal strung together a devastating break, the move begun and finished so impressively by Diaby.
Gliding from his half, Diaby passed to Fabregas and continued his run. Fabregas soon found Bendtner, whose cross was cut out by Agger. Bendtner was quickest to the loose ball, transferring down the right to Rosicky, whose cross was perfection, lifted into the box where the unmarked Diaby scored with an unstoppable header.
Liverpool tried to rally, tried to find an equaliser. Gerrard went down suspiciously easily after tangling with Song. England's vice-captain then curled in a free-kick that Almunia punched out. Gerrard was playing in a slightly more withdrawn role now, the anonymous Lucas having departed and Ryan Babel arriving on the left.
With nine minutes remaining, Wenger made a defensive substitution, taking off Bendtner and sending on Bacary Sagna with Eboue pushing into midfield.
Arsenal almost doubled their lead when Walcott, who had finally come on, laid the ball off to Fabregas, whose shot thudded wide.
Babel almost struck a spectacular equaliser five minutes from time, escaping from Gallas and unleashing a powerful 20-yarder that Almunia did superbly to tip on to the bar. It was a fabulous save, a riposte to the Spanish keeper's many critics.
But Arsenal were desperately fortunate that Webb missed Fabregas' hand-ball. (© Daily Telegraph, London)