By Richard Clarke.
Pepe Reina's last-minute own goal handed Arsenal a dramatic draw at Liverpool in their Premier League opener on Sunday.
For the majority of the afternoon, it seemed this game would be decided by events either side of half time. Just before the whistle, Joe Cole was dismissed for scything down Laurent Koscielny near the corner flag. Just after the restart, David Ngog scored with a rasping drive at the near post.
Arsenal huffed and puffed in the second half but, thanks to a couple of incredible saves from Reina, their search for the equaliser seemed fruitless. However in the dying seconds, Marouane Chamakh beat the keeper to a left-wing cross. The ball ricocheted back off the post and the Spaniard could only fumble it into the corner of the net.
Manuel Almunia saved sharply from Steven Gerrard's free-kick in injury time and Koscielny's incredible afternoon ended in dismissal after two yellow cards in the added minutes. It was a remarkable end to a game that enjoyed memorable flash-points but, in truth, had merely smouldered for much of the afternoon.
Make no mistake, this was exactly what Arsenal deserved from this fixture. They were the better side in first half and responded positively to a difficult situation in the second half.
Liverpool grabbed their goal and, quite understandably, defended it with their lives. Arsenal's job was to find a way through. Eventually, by hook or by crook, they did.
The fight they showed this afternoon bodes well for the rest of the campaign.
Wenger's team-sheet was eagerly anticipated this afternoon. Not only were there a number of injuries to be decided, the manager had to make a crucial call on his goalkeeper. In the end, Manuel Almunia got the nod in every sense - he started and was captain.
The other eye-catching decision was the selection of Jack Wilshere. The 18-year-old had made his full England debut in the week and this afternoon he started his first Premier League game for Arsenal. He was joined by Samir Nasri and Abou Diaby in midfield. Denilson (abdominal) and Cesc Fabregas (throat infection) were ruled out but Robin van Persie and Alex Song, who were also struggling with injury, made the bench.
Koscielny and Chamakh made their full debuts at centre back and centre forward respectively.
Anfield was resplendent before kick-off this afternoon. You could argue that Liverpool had endured the type of season Arsenal were predicted to suffer in 2009/10. While Wenger's men had taken their title-tilt to the final few weeks, Rafa Benitez's side could only manage seventh in the Premier League and had not made it past the Group Stages in the Champions League. Not surprisingly, Roy Hodgson replaced the Spaniard in the summer.
It all made this game bigger than the usual curtain-raiser.
However, for the majority of the first half, the football did not match the occasion.
In the fourth minute, Thomas Vermaelen's bullet free-kick forced Reina to punch clear.
In the 20th minute, Nasri's free-kick went into the wall and Vermaelen thumped the rebound wide. From the corner, the Belgian bundled a header over the bar.
On the half-hour, Gael Clichy fizzed a shot over the bar from range.
OK, it was hardly out-and-out domination but Arsenal were responsible for almost all the ingenuity on show. They prodded Liverpool into retreat in front of the Kop however they could not punish them.
The home side were listless and lacking. It took them until the 37th minute to register their first shot. It came when Milan Jovanovic raced clear with the Arsenal defence calling for offside. The Serbia hacked his effort horribly wide.
However, as half-time approached, the game changed.
A minute before the whistle, Glen Johnson careered up the right exchanged passes with Dirk Kuyt and fly from just outside the area. The ball was fizzing just over the bar but Almunia helped it on its way. Gerrard took the corner and David Ngog met it at the near post with a firm downward header. Clichy just managed to scrambled the ball off the line.
The drama cranked up a notch in injury time. Cole went through Koscielny down by the corner flag and received a straight red.
The England man was quickly followed down the tunnel by the injured Frenchman - on a stretcher. Club doctors apparently tested him for a broken leg during the interval.
Fortunately, Koscielny was able to reappear after the break however he quickly found himself a goal down.
Arsenal lost the ball on the corner of their own area and Ngog raced down the right-hand channel and fired a rising shot into the top corner at the near post.
Suddenly Liverpool seemed to have 12 men not 10. With the crowd behind them, they pinned back the visitors in the following five minutes and forced a flurry of corners.
They also won more than their fare share of free-kicks. With the first 10 minutes of the second half, Martin Skrtel and Ngog had both nodded wide when they might have scored.
By the hour, Wenger had seen enough. Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott replaced Emmanuel Eboue and Wilshere.
After the change, Arsenal began to get forward in greater numbers but Liverpool defended likewise and seemed to have drawn a deep well of confidence from the goal. In the 65th minute, Kuyt nutmegged Clichy on the byline and his low cross trickled dangerously across the face of goal.
However, Arsenal were now trying to force the issue. Rosicky crossed for Vermaelen to power a header wide, Nasri saw a goal-bound Howitzer blocked and, best of all, Reina saved from Walcott's curling free-kick.
Both teams brought on semi-fit, big-name strikers off the bench - Van Persie and Fernando Torres.
With 10 minutes left, Liverpool were reduced to nine men temporarily. Having brought on all three substitutes, Daniel Agger went down on his haunches and walked off gingerly.
He was off for five minutes and, as soon as he returned, Arsenal should have scored. Rosicky drove into the area, exchanged passes with Chamakh and tried to steer a right-foot shot beyond Reina. However the Spaniard gymnastically tipped the ball over the bar.
It was now open season on the Liverpool goal and Arsenal piled forward. Walcott nearly turned the ball home amid a melee and Vermaelen nodded wide from the subsequent corner.
In the end, via a combination of Chamakh and Reina, the visitors got their reward. Gerrard's free-kick nearly stole the points at the end and Koscielny rapid red card was highly unfortunate.
The same cannot be said about the point his team gleaned this afternoon.
- Vermaelen Yellow Card
- Koscielny Yellow Card Red Card
- Eboue 59
- Wilshere 59 Yellow Card
- Diaby 76
- Walcott 59
- Rosicky 59 Yellow Card
- van Persie 76
- Reina Goal!
- Cole Red Card
- Mascherano 78
- Gerrard Yellow Card
- Ngog 74 Goal!
- Jovanovic 65
- Lucas 78
- Maxi 65
- Torres 74