By Richard Clarke
Arsenal moved up to third in the Premiership with a richly-deserved 3-0 win over Liverpool at Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
The goals came from unlikely sources. Mathieu Flamini swept home from close-range just before the break. In the 56th minute, Kolo Toure galloped through the centre of the visiting defence before tucking his shot past Pepe Reina. Then, 11 minutes from time, an unmarked William Gallas headed home from a Robin van Persie's corner. The tally did not flatter Arsenal.
Much of the pre-match analysis had billed this game as a kind of 'title-decider'. The team that won would be likely to challenge Chelsea and Manchester United for the Premiership crown. The losers would not.
On the evidence of this afternoon, Arsenal will be in the thick of it. Apart from a flurry in the early stages of the first half, Liverpool offered little but Wenger's men grew in stature after the opening goal. An even first 30 minutes was followed by an hour of Arsenal dominance.
After a week in which the Arsenal manager had been quiet, this victory spoke volumes about the character and calibre of his side.
Before kick-off there was a special buzz of expectancy around Emirates Stadium. Not only had the Club reached double figures in terms of competitive games at their new ground but this represented arguably the first encounter against genuine title rivals. In addition, November was starting to bite forcing most of the crowd to turn up in coat and scarf. It felt like real football weather.
There was a late change in Arsène Wenger's team. Jens Lehmann had arrived at Emirates Stadium suffering from a throat infection and did not feel well enough to participate. Manuel Almunia stepped up to take his place with Mart Poom on the bench.
Apart from that, there were two changes from the side beaten at West Ham a week ago. Emmanuel Eboue replaced Justin Hoyte at right back and Mathieu Flamini came in for Tomas Rosicky who had hurt his hamstring in training on Thursday.
Arsenal had the ball in the net after only 90 seconds when Van Persie touched the ball past Reina and tapped home. However Mark Clattenburg spotted that the Dutchman's flick had been with his hand not his foot. Van Persie received a yellow card for his trouble.
The early breach did not affect Liverpool. In the 10th minute, Toure misjudged a huge punt forward by Reina and Dirk Kuyt muscled off Gallas before cracking the ball just past the angle of post and bar.
The Ivorian then blocked superbly from Crouch at point-blank range and, in the 14th minute, the gangly Liverpool striker had the ball on the Arsenal net, only for it to be chalked off by the assistant referee's flag.
The tide had definitely turned Liverpool's way but, as the half wore on, the home side would re-direct the game. In the 25th minute, Henry stormed down the left wing and only the intervention of John Arne Riise stopped Alex Helb turning in the ball at the far post. The French striker then fired a shot into the midriff of Reina.
A quick free-kick from the left allowed Boudewijn Zenden to clip a shot just over the Arsenal bar just before the half-hour. But, by this time, Arsenal had evened up the balance of play.
They got their reward four minutes before the break with a well-crafted goal. Hleb dribbled across the edge of the area before flicking the ball to Fabregas on the right. The Spaniard took a touch and crossed low to the near post for the tumbling Flamini to sweep home.
The French midfielder celebrated like it meant something. He leapt the advertising boards and drank the applause of the crowd. Then the referee brandished a yellow card in his direction.
Within two minutes of the restart, Steven Gerrard slashed a shot over the bar. But, if anything, Arsenal were looking the dominant side now. The goal had given them renewed confidence.
That was amply demonstrated in the 56th minute when Van Persie clipped a ball forward and, of all people, Toure sprinted through before tucking the ball past Reina. Quite what the centre back was doing there no-one knows but his finish was as clinical as any striker.
Now Liverpool simply had to respond. They spurned a fine chance almost immediately when Gerrard fired in a free-kick from the right and Zenden nodded over from six yards.
Then, just after Van Persie's shot had been smothered by Reina, the Liverpool captain sent a deflected effort onto the roof of the net.
Rafa Benitez sent on Jermaine Pennant and Craig Bellamy but the changes had little affect. In the 79th minute, Liverpool's defeat was complete when Gallas had ample time and space to head in a corner from Van Persie.
Bellamy nodded in from Gerrard's clip forward but, again, it was ruled out for offside. But substitute Emmanuel Adebayor should have scored a fourth in the dying seconds. He strode through powerfully but could only produce a weak shot straight at Reina.
- Toure Goal!
- Gallas Goal!
- Flamini Goal! Yellow Card
- van Persie 85 Yellow Card
- Adebayor 85
- Hyypia 82
- Carragher Yellow Card
- Gonzalez 61
- Alonso Yellow Card
- Crouch 69
- Agger 82
- Pennant 61 Yellow Card
- Bellamy 69