Wednesday 17 January 2018

Gunners firing on all cyclinders as Reds implode


Arsenal's Mesut Ozil celebrates after scoring his side's second goal in their win over Liverpool. Photo: BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images
Arsenal's Mesut Ozil celebrates after scoring his side's second goal in their win over Liverpool. Photo: BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images
Arsenal defender Hector Bellerin battles for the ball with Raheem Sterling of Liverpool. Photo: Paul Gilham/Getty Images
Arsenal's Francis Coquelin of battles for the ball with Lazar Markovic of Liverpool
Olivier Giroud scores Arsenal's fourth goal against Liverpool.

Jeremy Wilson

Manchester City, Manchester United and now Liverpool. For a club who entered 2015 seemingly still suffering from a mental block against the very best opposition, Arsenal have rather enjoyed the past three months.

Chelsea remain the ultimate test - and Arsène Wenger must register his first win against Jose Mourinho later this month to retain any small hope of winning the Premier League title - but Arsenal do have the look of contenders again.

We have been here before, of course, most notably in 2010-11 when the disintegration of a season that promised much proved the catalyst for the exits of Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie and Samir Nasri.

This squad, though, have a greater potential depth, quality and resilience than any since the 'Invincibles' era.

That is a source both of frustration and hope.

The frustration relates to a missed chance this season - a run of 21 wins in their past 26 matches underlines that they are good enough.

The hope relates to what might be possible next season.

Having overseen what he regards as the most "delicate" period in the club's history following the move to the Emirates Stadium, Wenger knows that the next two years should be about far more than just qualifying for the Champions League.

He even admitted that Olivier Giroud and Alexis Sánchez, who have 38 goals between them this season, are his most effective pair of strikers since the days of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires.

"That's a long time ago - but they're not bad names," Wenger said. "Giroud has surprised a lot of people. It shows we missed him when he was out for four months.

"Laurent Koscielny was out for four months too. Mesut Özil the same. They were all out together. You can see the difference."

Wenger added that he could now "smell" the attacking threat in his team but the one caveat was that he clearly wants even more from his midfielders.

"I expected Aaron Ramsey to be in there as well with 10 or 15 goals," he said.

"We need another player who gets 10 or 15 goals but we have a good mentality and good cohesion in the team.

"There is something happening. You can see that."

You certainly could on Saturday, with Arsenal's overall strength best summed up when Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers noted a range of substitute options that included Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck, Kieran Gibbs, Gabriel and Tomas Rosicky.

"It shows the continual work we have to do," Rodgers said.

Saturday's match was settled in a nine-minute period shortly before half-time when Héctor Bellerín, Özil and Sánchez all scored wonderful goals.

Bellerín showed his inexperience by later conceding the penalty for a foul on Raheem Sterling that might just have inspired a Liverpool comeback, but the dismissal of Emre Can and then a brilliantly-taken fourth by Giroud sealed the most emphatic of victories.

Afterwards, a dejected Rodgers accepted that it will be difficult to attract elite talent to Liverpool this summer after effectively conceding defeat in the race for a place in the Champions League.

Saturday's defeat left Liverpool seven points off fourth-placed Manchester City with only seven matches left.

Asked if the top four was now out of reach, Rodgers said: "I think so. I'm a realist.

"I think we needed to take something from Arsenal.

"I would not expect the others to slip up, particularly Arsenal or Manchester United.

"Add to that the growing number we've got unavailable and I think it will make it very, very difficult with only seven games to go."

With Steven Gerrard compounding last summer's loss of Luis Suarez by announcing that he will leave at the end of this season, the importance of keeping Sterling and Jordan Henderson has been magnified.

Rodgers has spoken personally to Sterling since the BBC interview last week that caused such a furore over his future and has blamed the 20-year-old's agent, Aidy Ward, for setting up the interview.

Sterling, who told by Rodgers that he will not be going anywhere this summer, has two years remaining on his contract but has so far refused the offer of a new deal worth around £100,000-per-week.

Sterling says that his football development, and not money, is the main motivation in his decision.

Liverpool's vast stature and illustrious history remain a selling point to some - Suarez and Philippe Coutinho were signed when the club were outside the Champions League - but Rodgers knows that the very best players want to measure themselves against Europe's elite.

"I think that Liverpool is a great club but players want to play at the top level of the game and, if you're not in the Champions League it makes it difficult for you. We know that," said the Anfield manager.

In terms both of their revenues and wage structure, Liverpool are well behind Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal.

That advantage is only likely to be exaggerated if those four clubs do qualify for the Champions League.

Liverpool now face a vital FA Cup replay on Wednesday night against Blackburn Rovers.

They are already without Martin Skrtel, Steven Gerrard and Emre Can and Rodgers is unsure if Mario Balotelli will be available.

The Liverpool manager made it clear that Balotelli had not been ruled out of Saturday's game by the club's medical staff.

"He trained with the team, had a slight knock Friday and felt he had to come out of the training," said Rodgers. "He felt it was too sore to travel.

"The medical team looked at it but it was the decision of Mario."

But Coutinho believes that the FA Cup can still rescue the season.

"Winning the cup would save our season," said the Brazilian midfielder.

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