By Richard Clarke
Ten-man Arsenal drew 1-1 with Liverpool at Emirates Stadium on Sunday in a game of high drama and even greater controversy.
Arsène Wenger’s side were in charge until just before the break. They scored an exquisite individual goal through Robin van Persie in the 24th minute and, crucially, had seemed to have found some security at the back.
However in the 42nd minute Robbie Keane chased an aimless boot out of defence and finished with brilliant ferocity. On the whistle, Cesc Fabregas injured himself in a challenge with Xavi Alonso. He hobbled down the tunnel and was not seen again.
Emmanuel Adebayor followed him in the 62nd minute after receiving a debatable second yellow card for a foul on Alvaro Arbeloa.
The dismissal was an injustice to what had been a pulsating game to that point. For the final 30 minutes the match was all about the battle not the football.
Both sides decided to keep what they had rather than gamble on another goal.
In the circumstances it was a valuable draw for Arsenal but they remain eight points off the summit of the Premier League.
Wenger made just one change from the side that had taken a point away from Middlesbrough last Saturday. Samir Nasri was fit again after damaging his ankle in the last game at Emirates Stadium against Wigan on December 6. The Frenchman took his regular role on the left with Denilson on the opposite flank. Cesc Fabregas and Alex Song were in the middle while Abou Diaby dropped to the bench.
Kolo Toure (calf), Theo Walcott (shoulder), Eduardo (match fitness) and Tomas Rosicky (hamstring tendon) were all missing.
As expected Liverpool were without Fernando Torres but Rafa Benitez was a somewhat surprising absentee. The Liverpool manager was still feeling effects of surgery after a kidney stones complaint. We wish him a speed recovery.
Arsenal were generally perceived to be ailing themselves this season. Their campaign had been stricken by a rash of early defeats and only a couple wins against the ‘Big Four’ had kept the title flame flickering. Those victories against Chelsea and Manchester United had been previewed as “must-wins”. This encounter was no different.
Liverpool came to Emirates Stadium as the leaders and with a significant advantage over Wenger’s men. The pendulum could swing to five points or 11 depending on the result this afternoon. It was hard to overestimate the importance of this game in Arsenal’s season.
Perhaps that was why they started in cagey fashion.
In fact the teams mustered only one chance each in the opening 15 minutes. First Keane, an ever-willing runner, collected Daniel Agger’s long ball forward and set up Steven Gerrard for a piledriver 25 yards out. Given the England midfielder’s reputation from such a distance his execution was very average and Manuel Almunia collected easily.
A couple of minutes later, Sagna went on a raid down the right. His curling cross found Adebayor, who tried a deft backheader towards the far corner. Pepe Reina was stretched but no more.
Thus far, both sides were treating each other with the utmost respect. It seemed they dare not commit too far forward for fear of being caught out in the counter.
In such circumstances, only an error or a dash of genius can break the deadlock. In this case it was the latter.
There was little on when when Nasri floated a crossfield ball towards the Liverpool area in the 24th minute. However, Van Persie had spotted the pass before the visiting defence and was already on the shoulder of the final defender when the ball was in midflight. He would follow perception with poise.
Running at full pace the 25-year-old Dutchman chested the ball down just outside the area, twisted himself into space and unleashed a vicious shot past Reina at the near post. It was Van Persie’s 10th goal of the season and perhaps his greatest for Arsenal. And that particular award seems to get more competitive every year.
The home side were now buzzing. The quality of Van Persie’s strike was present in their passing until the equaliser. They pressed Liverpool still further but, to be fair, the visitors were robust and tried to flex their considerable football muscle.
As usual, Gerrard was at the heart of everything. He fired straight at Almunia from a long-range free-kick and hacked a couple of subsequent efforts over the bar.
But generally Arsenal seemed to be in control so Liverpool’s equaliser came, quite literally, like a bolt from the blue. Daniel Agger hacked a long ball out of defence with seemingly little thought for the strikers in front of him. However the high, hanging clearance was pursued by Keane with typical eagerness. He left Djourou and Gallas in his wake and then showed expert technique to send an unstoppable half-volley in the roof of the net from just inside the area. It was a juddering shock for Arsenal.
And it nearly got much worse before half time. Kuyt appeared on the right of the area and slid a ball to Gerrard at the far post. It was just in front of the Liverpool captain who could only send a stretching shot wide.
Kuyt’s goal-bound cross shot was superbly touched wide by Almunia during injury time and, in the final seconds, Fabregas and Xavi Alonso met in a clattering but entirely fair 50:50 challenge. The Arsenal captain went off in some distress and it was no surprise when Diaby replaced him after half time.
Liverpool could now smell weakness in Arsenal. They began the second half in search of a goal and they nearly found it when superb work from Emiliano Insua on the left-hand byline set up Lucas on the edge of the area. The Brazilian hammered a low shot towards the near post but Almunia got down well to parry.
There was now a danger that Arsenal’s midfield would be overrun. The loss of Fabregas had seen Denilson move inside to partner Song. Nasri was now on the right and Diaby on the left. Only the Cameroonian had retained the position in which he started the game.
Repelling Gerrard and Co was a big ask for a quartet whose average age was less than 21. And the questions got all the more searching in the 62nd minute when Adebayor was sent off for a second yellow card.
The Togolese striker had been booked for a foul on Emiliano Insua seven minutes before the break. His foot was raised in that tackle but it was less arguable than the foul that cost him his participation in the game. The home crowd were vociferous and vocal in their disapproval of Howard Webb’s decision.
That reaction spurred on Arsenal and, though they held their own going forward, shots from Nasri and Van Persie were never going in.
By now, Liverpool had brought on Ryan Babel to stretch the Arsenal defence. However it was another substitute, Nabil El Zhar, who tested Almunia when trying to feed Kuyt.
With four minutes left Agger grazed the angle of post and bar with a rocket of a shot from 30 yards but, by now, it appeared both sides were in the same frame mind in which they had started the game. They knew they had more to lose than gain from chancing their arm too much. That said El Zhar steered a header inches wide in the final minute of normal time. Had that gone in, that would have been a robbery and the Arsenal fans felt bereft of Christmas cheer as it was.
Their team remain in the title race but have much work to do.
Referee: Howard Webb
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