By Chris Harris at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal’s title challenge suffered another dent as Liverpool snatched a point in a controversial tale of two penalties.
Robin van Persie looked to have sewn up a vital win with a coolly-dispatched spot-kick in the eighth and apparently final minute of stoppage time added on after a sickening injury to Jamie Carragher.
But with 101 minutes on the clock Dirk Kuyt restored parity with the last kick of the game after Emmanuel Eboue pushed Lucas Leiva.
It was another disheartening blow on home soil and it was probably ill-deserved. Arsenal had made most of the running without ever looking at their best and went closest before that frantic finale when Laurent Koscielny crashed a header against the crossbar.
When the dust settles, Arsenal will find themselves six points behind Manchester United with six games each to play. The leaders travel south on May 1 but Arsène Wenger’s side need favours from other teams now.
And they need to win their own games too, starting with Tottenham in the North London derby on Wednesday.
Ultimately this will go down as a frustrating day but it will also be remembered as a poignant one. Before the match the whole of Emirates Stadium rose in tribute to the late Danny Fiszman as well as the 96 victims of the Hillsborough Disaster which unfolded 22 years ago this week.
The Emirates was especially colourful on this sunny Sunday afternoon as the dark coats of winter made way for replica shirt sleeves. And Arsenal’s fans had an extra spring in their step after discovering that Wojciech Szczesny and Johan Djourou were back in the starting line-up. There was a third change as Andrey Arshavin made way for Theo Walcott and, with Alex Song also fit and among the subs, Wenger’s squad had virtually a clean bill of health.
It was just as well given the identity of their opponents. Liverpool are a very different beast from the one that squandered a winning position in the reverse fixture on the opening weekend of the campaign. And in Andy Carroll they have a beast of a striker who has already scored a winning goal here this season – for Newcastle in November.
Carroll’s much-touted strength in the air was expected to be Liverpool’s main threat but the England man was beaten to a high ball in the fourth minute as Diaby rose to glance Cesc Fabregas’ inswinging free-kick past the far post.
There were tit-bits for the visitors to snack on in the opening moments – Luis Suarez warmed up Szczesny with a low free-kick before Carroll headed tamely over and then wide. But Arsenal started to take a grip with Eboue offering dynamic support from right back behind the usual suspects.
A savage snap-shot from Walcott surprised Reina in the 13th minute and the Liverpool keeper got nowhere near a Van Persie corner four minutes later as Koscielny soared above him and Carragher to crash a header against the bar. Djourou was first to the rebound and nodded down for Walcott to wallop a shot against Kuyt’s arm but the penalty shout was rightly turned down.
Carroll was increasingly isolated at the other end as strike partner Suarez dropped back to help. And although Liverpool couldn’t stem the flow of Arsenal’s forward movement, they did deny them the space to carve out gilt-edged opportunities.
Fabregas and Van Persie linked up twice in three minutes just before the half-hour mark. First the captain picked out his team-mate with a clip over the top – a tactic deployed so successfully at Blackpool last weekend – but Van Persie was marginally offside as he drilled the ball past Reina. Then a one-two on the edge of the box left Fabregas in a decent position but he dragged his left-footed effort wide.
By now Fabio Aurelio had limped off and Walcott looked to expose his replacement at left back, Jack Robinson. But it was the man stationed behind him, Eboue, who fired the last meaningful shot of the half after drifting into the area and collecting Fabregas’ pass. The Ivorian’s low effort hit Martin Skrtel and looped past Reina before spinning just wide.
After a half-time talking to, Liverpool emerged from the break with far more purpose and Szczesny was relieved to watch Suarez’s effort fizz past his right-hand post. But the visitors lost their second defender of the afternoon just before the hour when Carragher was stretchered off after a horrible collision with John Flanagan.
That gave Arsenal time to regroup and they improved after that long delay. Walcott just failed to pick out Van Persie with a low cross and the Dutchman saw an attempted lob flick off a defender after Fabregas had picked him out with a searching pass.
Van Persie was first to Nasri’s resulting corner, guiding a header into the side-netting at Reina’s near post. Arsenal were getting closer without ever looking totally convincing.
Suarez was though. Pushed on after Carroll’s departure, the Uruguayan tested Szczesny with one curling effort and then saw an ever better chance snaffled by the Polish goalkeeper.
By now Wenger had brought on Arshavin and Nicklas Bendtner for Walcott and a tiring Jack Wilshere. Song would follow them on before the end.
There was plenty of time for one final push.
Gael Clichy’s raking cross was met by Van Persie’s flick header but Reina plucked it out of the air. Then the Liverpool keeper stood up brilliantly to deny the Dutchman as he went clean through five minutes from time. Fabregas worked the rebound to Bendtner but Reina was equal to his dipping volley too.
Suarez almost made Arsenal pay but sliced a golden chance high and wide from a narrow angle.
The fourth official’s appearance offered hope: there would be EIGHT minutes of stoppage time thanks to Carragher’s injury.
And after Reina dealt authoratively with a succession of crosses, the chance Arsenal craved arrived when Spearing clumsily brought Fabregas down inside the box with the clock showing 97 minutes.
Up stepped Van Persie. Calm as you like he slotted the ball to the bottom-left corner while Reina chose the other way.
But there was a horrible twist in the 101st minute. Suarez's free kick was blocked, Eboue pushed Lucas in a race for the loose ball, another penalty was awarded and Kuyt levelled it up.
It was the final kick of the game.
- Eboue Yellow Card
- Wilshere 74
- Walcott 74
- Diaby 80
- van Persie Goal! Yellow Card
- Arshavin 74
- Song 80
- Bendtner 74
- Flanagan Yellow Card
- Aurelio 20
- Carragher 61
- Skrtel Yellow Card
- Lucas Yellow Card
- Carroll 71
- Kuyt Goal!
- Robinson 20
- Kyrgiakos 61
- Shelvey 71 Yellow Card