By Chris Harris
Two moments of magic from Tomas Rosicky lit up this pulsating FA Cup tie as Arsenal overcame the considerable obstacle of Liverpool to book their place in the Fourth Round.
The Czech midfielder had just one goal to his name this season ahead of the trip to Anfield - and that was a cracker in Hamburg. Rosicky added two more classics to his portfolio in six first-half minutes to give Arsenal a lead they never surrendered. His first was a perfectly-executed curler into the top corner, his second a low shot into the bottom corner after a mazy run. It seems Rosicky is not a great goalscorer, but he is a scorer of great goals.
Predictably, Liverpool roared back after the break and set up a grandstand finish when Dirk Kuyt flicked home Peter Crouch's header with 20 minutes remaining. The Cup holders looked capable of forcing a replay but Thierry Henry extinguished their hopes with a memorable effort of his own seven minutes from time.
It seems churlish to point out that Arsenal were not at their best. However, they were ruthless with the handful of chances they created. Liverpool dominated possession but made few inroads, largely thanks to towering performances from Kolo Toure and Philippe Senderos.
Arsène Wenger has taken Arsenal to five Finals in this competition, lifting the famous old trophy on four occasions since arriving in England a decade ago. On the evidence of this game, the Frenchman has every chance of taking his team to Wembley for the first FA Cup showpiece at the new national stadium.
The big surprise before kick-off was Jens Lehmann's omission from the team sheet. Manuel Almunia stepped in for his first appearance since November's emphatic win against... Liverpool. Wenger made two further changes from the midweek victory against Charlton, one enforced, one not. Mathieu Flamini replaced the suspended Cesc Fabregas while Justin Hoyte made way for Emmanuel Eboue, fit again after an ankle injury. Julio Baptista and Theo Walcott were also back in the squad after shrugging off knocks; both started on the bench.
Liverpool reached their nadir with that 3-0 defeat at Emirates Stadium earlier this season but they have been transformed since then. It showed in the first half-an-hour. While Arsenal struggled to come to terms with the creative void left by Fabregas' ban, Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard took a grip in midfield. Jermaine Pennant, enjoying a battle royale with Gael Clichy on the Liverpool right, was full of tricks but, for all their possession, the home side failed to test Almunia.
Gerrard's wayward effort was the only shot of note in the opening 20 minutes. At the other end, Jerzy Dudek barely had to muddy his gloves. But after a sleepy start, the game woke up in the 24th minute. Another cross landed in the Arsenal box, Gilberto's first touch was poor and he slid in to challenge the onrushing Alonso. The Spaniard clipped the ball over the Brazilian's boot and took a tumble. Gilberto certainly connected with Alonso but all the midfielder got for his troubles was a yellow card for 'diving'.
The home fans - not to mention Alonso - were incensed. Either way, it raised the tempo and not before time. The game opened up and chances arrived at both ends. First Van Persie showed strength and skill before finding Hleb on the right. The Belarussian raced into the box, cut inside and let fly with his left foot but his shot was blocked.
Ten minutes before the break Alonso almost broke the deadlock in spectacular fashion, meeting a left-wing corner with a sweet volley from 25 yards. Anfield was still admiring the Spaniard's handywork when Arsenal took the lead. Rosicky and Hleb exchanged passes on the right and, as Hleb darted down the right channel, Rosicky checked his run. Hleb found the Czech international lurking on the edge of the box and Rosicky curled a beautiful first-time effort into the top corner.
It got even better for Arsenal. Three minutes before the break a good spell of possession culminated with Henry's short pass to Rosicky 30 yards from goal. The diminutive Czech jinked past two challenges and worked a yard of space before firing low past Dudek into the bottom corner.
Liverpool were always going to come out fighting in the second half and so it proved. However, they struggled to create clear-cut chances. Plenty of crosses were pumped into Arsenal's box and Crouch and Kuyt won plenty of headers, but Toure, Senderos and company consistently picked up the pieces. Meanwhile, Arsenal looked to prosper on the break. Van Persie showed great strength to hold off Jamie Carragher and test Dudek at his near post on one foray forward but the Dutchman's touch was too heavy when Henry sent him clear a few moments later.
Still Liverpool pressed. Finally, they broke through. Twenty minutes remained when Pennant's corner was nodded goalwards by the towering Crouch. This time Arsenal didn't pick up the pieces. Instead, Kuyt flicked the ball past Almunia from barely two yards. Game on.
Wenger replaced Van Persie with Baptista but it did nothing to stem the red tide. Fabio Aurelio flashed a volley just wide with Almunia beaten and Kuyt headed wide after finding space in the Arsenal box. With the Kop roaring them on, Liverpool piled forward. Then Henry knocked the wind out of their sails with seven minutes left.
The Arsenal captain, by now ploughing a lonely furrow up front, pinched possession and knocked the ball into a gap on the left flank. He gave Carragher a five-yard start but, after making up the ground, robbed the Liverpool defender. Henry raced towards goal, cut inside and fired a right-footed shot past Dudek, who should really have done better.
Liverpool had nothing left to give. Henry departed shortly afterwards to applause from all four stands and the final whistle was greeted with a roar by the buoyant travelling fans and jubilation from the team in yellow. They came here as underdogs; now Arsenal are among the Cup favourites. Wembley here we come?
- Eboue 67 Yellow Card
- Clichy Yellow Card
- Senderos Yellow Card
- Rosicky Goal! Goal!
- Henry 88 Goal!
- van Persie 72
- Hoyte 67
- Julio Baptista 72
- Walcott 88
- Riise 60
- Luis Garcia
- Alonso Yellow Card
- Kuyt Goal!
- Aurelio 60