By Richard Clarke
For the second time in four days, Arsenal and Liverpool played out a tense 1-1 draw at Emirates Stadium. But while Wednesday's stalemate did little more than give Rafa Benitez' side a slight advantage at the midway point of a two-legged Champions League Quarter Final, this one may have more influence.
Arsenal went into this Premier League game in third place, six points behind leaders Manchester United. They needed nothing less than a win and, on Saturday afternoon, despite their best efforts they could not force one.
In fact, it seemed Arsenal were on their way to defeat in the first half. Both sides had made major changes after Wednesday but Liverpool settled much the better. An excellent goal from Peter Crouch gave the visitors the lead and few could have argued it was deserved.
However Arsenal were rejuvenated after the break. Nicklas Bendtner brought them level in the 55th minute with a towering header and the home side continued to press until the frantic final minutes.
As on Wednesday, the overbearing feeling at full time was disappointment. There can be few complaints with the second-half performance but it was just not enough on the day.
In reality, Arsenal need any number of favours to win the title now.
But they can make amends on Tuesday at Anfield when the two sides complete their trilogy with the Champions League Quarter-Final second leg.
Both managers performed major surgery on their sides after the midweek draw at the same venue in the Champions League. Wenger brought in Gilberto, Bendtner, Justin Hoyte, Theo Walcott and, making his full Premier League debut, Armand Traore. Emmanuel Adebayor, Alex Hleb and Gael Clichy were left on the bench. Philippe Senderos was rested completely while Wednesday's other starter, Robin van Persie, was out with the thigh problem that had forced him off at half time in that tie.
As for Liverpool, they retained only Pepe Reina, Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel. There was plenty of experience among the players brought in: Steve Finnan, John Arne Riise, Peter Crouch, Lucas, Alvaro Arbeloa and Yossi Benayoun and Jermaine Pennant. But Benitez also gave a full debut to Damien Plessis, a 20-year-old French midfielder. Like Arsenal, the Big Guns - Steve Gerrard and Fernando Torres - were left on the bench.
Perhaps it was overfamiliarity, perhaps it was the early start, but the opening quarter-hour was quiet. There was one notable chance when, after a couple of minutes, Hoyte gave away the ball in midfield and Crouch let fly from 30 yards. The leaping Almunia thrust out his right hand to turned the ball over the bar. But that was about it.
Kolo Toure did force Reina to anxiously punch clear but generally Liverpool had the edge with Crouch the most eye-catching contributor. In the 18th minute, his clever touch sent Riise through but the Norwegian blazed over the bar.
As the half wore on, the difference between the sides became more than just 'an edge'. Arsenal were disjointed and Liverpool were on top territorially but their efforts were only from long-range. Midway through the half Plessis and Pennant both fired well wide.
However in the 32nd minute, visitors created an altogether clearer chance. Benayoun played a one-two with Lucas and burst into the area. Fortunately for Arsenal, the Isreali dragged his effort across goal.
When, a couple of minutes later, Skrtel's header fell to Fabregas who drove wide - it amounted to Arsenal's first real chance of the game.
However almost immediately they manufactured something altogether more clear-cut. Flamini fed Walcott through the middle and Carragher's sliding clearance fell to Bendtner in space 12 yards out. The Dane fired tamely at Reina when he should have done much, much better.
Suddenly Arsenal were creating opportunities - though in reality they were barely playing any better. Eboue raced onto Flamini's dummy to go clear on right. However, when the ball was clipped into the six-yard box, Finnan slid in to clear from the fast approaching Fabregas.
It seemed that Arsenal were finally woken up and Liverpool were on the back foot.
And that's just when Liverpool scored.
Reina pumped a goal kick forward and Crouch beat Toure in the air. His cushioned header fell to Benayoun, who flicked the ball back into the path of the England striker. Crouch cut inside and fired home from the edge of the area.
It was an expert finish but a body blow to Arsenal's hopes in the Premier League and Champions League. A defeat today would all but end Wenger's hopes in the former and may affect their psyche for the Tuesday's game in the latter.
They went into the break badly in need a response.
In fairness, Arsenal supplied that in the 10 minutes after the restart. First Walcott saw a deflected effort fly over then Toure steered a close-range header narrowly wide.
The equaliser was coming and it arrived in the 55th minute. Traore was fouled on the left-hand byline, Fabregas floated over the free-kick and Bendtner bulldozered through a ruck of players to steer home a header from six yards out.
Just before the goal, Wenger had primed Adebayor to come on. He made the change a couple of minutes after the leveller. Hoyte was hauled off. Interestingly he did not join Bendtner up front. The Dane was pulled back to the left side of midfield. Along with Walcott, his job was supply wide support to the Togolese targetman.
The goal and the substitution had completely changed the nature of the game.
Arsenal were now well on top and going for the jugular. They pinned the visitors back in their own third of the field. Walcott had a goal-bound effort blocked and in the 70th minute and Flamini forced a low save from Reina.
By now Liverpool had brought on Gerrard. His impact was almost immediate with Almunia pawing away his teasing cross from just under the bar.
At this point, visiting attacks were a relative rarity though Crouch did fire a trademark overhead kick a few metres high.
However Arsenal were getting joy down the left. Bendtner skipped superbly around two challenges but his cross was blocked then Clichy's clip nearly reached Gallas at the near post.
The Arsenal captain got a bloody nose for his trouble and disappeared down the tunnel temporarily. While the home side were down to 10 men, substitute Andriy Voronin volley wide when he should have scored.
With nine minutes, both managers played their final cards. Hleb came on for Arsenal, Torres for Liverpool. It was all set for another vibrant finale - and Wenger's men have specialised in those recently.
The pressure was with the home side but Liverpool were getting joy on the break. Voronin skipped past Almunia but slipped as he attempted to cross, Torres went clear on the right but his cross to woeful.
Arsenal battered on the door of the Liverpool defence until the end. There was merest hope of a winner in injury time when the ball went to Hleb on the left of the area. However the Belarus midfielder miscontrolled at the crucial moment.
The whistle blew a few moments later.
- Hoyte 57
- Traore 73
- Eboue Yellow Card
- Flamini 81
- Bendtner Goal!
- Clichy 73
- Hleb 81
- Adebayor 57
- Riise Yellow Card
- Benayoun 74
- Pennant 66 Yellow Card
- Crouch 81 Goal!
- Gerrard 66
- Voronin 74
- Torres 81