By Richard Clarke
Once again Andrey Arshavin was Liverpool's chief tormentor as Arsenal barged their way back into the thick of the title race with a 2-1 comeback win at Anfield on Sunday.
The little Russian striker scored four times in this fixture last season but it brought the visitors only one point.
This afternoon, Arshavin struck once, albeit it a cracker in to the top corner, to complete a barnstorming Arsenal victory.
Dirk Kuyt had deservedly put the home side in front five minutes before the break after Manuel Almunia had palmed out a free-kick from Fabio Aurelio.
Arsenal's equaliser - an own goal from Glen Johnson - was full of good fortune. But their winner was 100 per cent class.
With Manchester United and Tottenham losing three points at the weekend plus Manchester City and Chelsea letting slip two apiece, this was always going to be a massive chance for Wenger's men.
They are now third, three points behind Sir Alex Ferguson's side with a game in hand.
If Arsenal beat their next five opponents - winnable trips to Burnley and Portsmouth then Hull, Villa and Bolton at home - they can expect to be Chelsea's nearest challengers by January 6.
A fortnight ago, when the Stamford Bridge side won 3-0 at Emirates Stadium, that looked miles away.
But now Arsenal are looking credible title winners. They are six points off Chelsea with that spare fixture in their back pocket.
The race is on again.
Continuing injury problems left Wenger with few options in his team selection before the game. In the end he left his two returning players - Abou Diaby (calf) and Eduardo (thigh) - on the bench.
Arshavin retained his role up front after an impressive display against Stoke last weekend. Alex Song was back from suspension.
Liverpool were at full strength. The only doubt was the level of fitness that Fernando Torres had retained during his six-week absence with a hernia injury. Steven Gerrard, their pivotal player, had returned in midweek against Fiorentina.
Saturday's results had opened up an opportunity for both of these sides and they started like they knew this was a massive moment in their respective seasons.
The early pace was breathtaking, full of snapping challenges and earnest endeavour. However chances were few and, when they did come, they went Liverpool's way.
In the 12th minute, Gerrard broke clear on the right with Torres in space to the left of him. The Englishman's pass was straight to the feet of the Spaniard who had the very definition of a one-on-one with Almunia. The striker seemed certain to score but he sidefooted limply into the arms of his compatriot. You have to a think a less rusty Torres would have put Liverpool in front.
A couple of minutes later, the home side had confident claims for a penalty when Gallas felled Gerrard. However Referee Howard Webb played on.
The Liverpool captain had lost the ball before he went down. That is probably the only thing that saved Arsenal.
Almost immediately Aurelio clipped Sagna on the right and Thomas Vermaelen nodded over from Cesc Fabregas' free-kick.
It would be their best chance of the half. The visitors attacked with ingenuity but would only have sporadic success. Arshavin was closely shackled by Daniel Agger while Aurelio stalked Walcott with a dogged determination.
By the time, the first half had reached halfway, Liverpool were taking control. Almunia was under pressure from a number of free-kicks and corners while Glen Johnson was an increasing influence.
The England right back made his way into the Arsenal area on a number of occasions but the most eye-catching opportunities saw William Gallas make a timely interception then Gerrard had his shot blocked by Song.
Five minutes from half-time, the opening goal arrived. Denilson fouled Gerrard 30 yards out and Aurelio floated in the free-kick. Alumina could only bat the ball out to Kuyt and the Dutchman chested the ball down before threading shot into the net through a crowded area.
At the break, Arsenal might have been feeling a little sorry for themselves but their response was positive.
In the opening stages they sustained pressure for perhaps the first time in the game - and that pressure would tell.
Arshavin nodded wide and then Fabregas fired low at Pepe Reina.
Then, five minutes in, Arsenal got lucky.
Nasri raced onto Fabregas' ball on the right-hand side. His cross deflected off the tumbling Jamie Carragher, hit Johnson and then trickled in.
It was fortunate but Arsenal had grafted for their luck. As the team ran back to their own half, Arshavin spoke to Gallas, Fabregas and Song in the strongest terms. The Russian clearly fancied a comeback.
Eight minutes later, we found out just how much.
Fabregas fed Arshavin on the corner of the area, the Russian tricked an inch of space from his marker Johnson and fired a rocket of a shot high into the net off inside of Reina's right-hand post. It was trademark Arshavin, there was immense power but little backlift. It was as good as any of his four last season - and just as important.
Liverpool responded as you might expect. Pressure and urgency. But there was a suddenly tension in their play and in the stands.
Wenger replaced Walcott with Diaby to stiffen his side in the tackle. It helped Arsenal cope but Liverpool's storm quickly blew itself out.
To be honest, Almunia was a caretaker as much as a goalkeeper in the final stages.
Arsenal held on with relative ease and there were few real alarms. At full time, the visiting fans were in full voice.
Their songs lasted long after the teams had left the pitch.
Their side had offered the right response this afternoon and, just maybe, paved the way for a proper assault on the title in the New Year.
- Traore 87
- Fabregas (C) Yellow Card
- Denilson Yellow Card
- Arshavin 90 Goal! Yellow Card
- Walcott 70
- Silvestre 87
- Diaby 70
- Ramsey 90
- Johnson 82
- Aurelio Yellow Card
- Lucas Yellow Card
- Kuyt Goal!
- Mascherano 65 Yellow Card
- Gerrard (C)
- Benayoun 79
- Degen 82
- Aquilani 65
- Ngog 79