Saturday 17 March 2018

Gone in 18 minutes - Arsenal hope turns to despair as Reds run riot

Arsenal 3 Liverpool 4

Petr Cech flies through the air but can’t prevent Philippe Coutinho equalising for Liverpool against Arsenal at the Emirates. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Petr Cech flies through the air but can’t prevent Philippe Coutinho equalising for Liverpool against Arsenal at the Emirates. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Jack De Menezes

For 45 minutes, there were enough positives to suggest that the prophets of doom were once again exaggerating Arsenal's potential demise. Then, within 20 minutes, all their predictions were emphatically realised.

Theo Walcott had made up for missing a penalty two minutes earlier when he put Arsenal ahead just after the half-hour, but an innocuous foul from debutant Rob Holding set in motion a chain of events that turned the Emirates atmosphere ugly within an hour of play.

Liverpool's Jordan Henderson celebrates after the match. Photo: Eddie Keogh/Reuters
Liverpool's Jordan Henderson celebrates after the match. Photo: Eddie Keogh/Reuters

From that free-kick, Philippe Coutinho curled a stunning effort past Petr Cech in first-half injury time, before Adam Lallana, Coutinho again and the rampant Sadio Mane put Liverpool 4-1 up 18 minutes into the second half.

That Arsenal managed to fight their way back into the game to 4-3 said something about their character - and more about Liverpool's defence - but there were far more negatives here than positives.

Wenger's failure to find a new defender and striker came to light in the second half, and while this is only the first weekend of a 10-month season, it could be Wenger's most important year of his 20 in the Premier League. His contract is up at the end of this campaign, and a renewal is no longer the certainty it once was.

The good cheer that comes with the start of a new season was in full display in the build-up to the kick-off, where fans could lay their hands on a free matchday programme, complete with new signing Granit Xhaka plastered across the front cover.

Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp with Adam Lallana
Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp with Adam Lallana

If Arsenal were determined to push their marquee summer signing in an effort to make fans forget about their transfer failings over the last month, no one had informed Wenger - as he left his new acquisition out of the starting line-up. Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny filled the centre of the pitch in an effort to protect Wenger's young centre-back pairing of Calum Chambers and new addition Holding, a £2.5m addition from Bolton Wanderers after they were relegated to League One.

With every opening weekend comes the admission that it's a big season for Walcott, and each year he fails to deliver. There were understandably plenty of concerned faces then when, after winning a penalty from a rash Alberto Moreno lunge, Walcott's poor spot-kick effort was saved by Simon Mignolet to his right.

Walcott's luck was about to change, however. Moreno, himself lucky to be still on the pitch given he had followed up his booking for conceding the penalty by furiously reacting towards assistant referee Stuart Burt after Mignolet's save, abandoned his defensive responsibilities, and when Philippe Coutinho lost the ball twice in the space of 15 seconds, a committed slide tackle from Coquelin on Lallana released Hector Bellerin, who found Alex Iwobi on the edge of the area.

Iwobi elected to play in an unmarked Walcott on the right, with Moreno by now realising the error of his ways as he sprinted back - but it was too late.

Arsenal's Calum Chambers (left) and Liverpool's Sadio Mane battle for the ball. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire.
Arsenal's Calum Chambers (left) and Liverpool's Sadio Mane battle for the ball. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire.

Walcott took a touch before sliding the ball to Mignolet's right and into the side netting, his reprieve triggering a passionate celebration and relief around the Emirates that Arsenal had been able to convert their superiority into a lead.

Liverpool had their chances though, with the Arsenal defence allowing summer signing Mane far too much space whenever he got the ball, yet Liverpool's front three were failing to test Arsenal's unproven centre-back pairing. Luckily for the visitors, they wouldn't need to in order to equalise.

As the clock ticked over into time added on, Holding was harshly penalised for grappling with Coutinho. From 30 yards out, Coutinho unleashed a sublime curling effort into the top left corner that had Cech beat, and the midfielder was already running to celebrate by the time the ball nestled into the net.

Arsenal could take heart from their first-half showing, but they started the second half terribly. A lapse of concentration from Bellerin allowed Mane to break down the right, and the Senegalese cut back as he entered the area before chipping a cross towards an on-rushing Lallana in the middle of the box. The midfielder, who had a rather forgettable first 45 minutes, used his chest to cushion the ball before neatly placing it past Cech.

Arsenal were rattled, and it didn't take long for Liverpool to find a third. Nathaniel Clyne burst down the right in the 55th minute to skin Nacho Monreal and fizz in a low cross to the centre of the box, where Coutinho was poised to hit the ball past Cech first time.

With Liverpool firing on all cylinders, what followed was one of the most bizarre periods seen in Premier League football. Mane was terrorising the Arsenal defence, and he burst past Monreal before beating Chambers, the pair both struggling with anything that came their way. The Senegalese cut inside and lashed the ball past Cech for Liverpool's fourth - the tipping point for many inside the Emirates.

Boos rang out, some made their way for the exits after just 63 minutes muttering "disgraceful" and "déjà vu" as they passed the press box. But more alarming was the surge towards the Arsenal dugout by a selection of 'fans' who felt it necessary to let Wenger know they weren't impressed with the 4-1 scoreline. Stewards were required to keep them at distance, with the aggressors completely oblivious to the fact that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain - on for the injured Iwobi - had worked the ball beyond Clyne and Lallana and fired a shot past Mignolet via the boot of Dejan Lovren to make it 4-2.

With the boos silenced, Arsenal pressed on again and found a third 11 minutes later. Coquelin was fouled towards the left touchline, with Arsenal deciding to flood the box and put Mignolet under pressure, the Liverpool goalkeeper beginning to have one of those games. It worked, and Chambers rose highest to meet substitute Santi Cazorla's floated cross to find the corner of the net.

It wasn't enough though, and Arsenal's failure to at least salvage a draw did not sit well with a frustrated Wenger, who after the match was in no mood to talk. It would get worse still, as captain Petr Cech managed to crash his car as he left the Emirates. It was described as a write-off, just like Arsenal's season - unless they make a major statement in the transfer market in the next two weeks. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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