By Chris Harris
Andrey Arshavin scored an awesome foursome but Liverpool fought back to snatch a draw in a pulsating encounter at Anfield.
Arsenal’s Russian playmaker prodded the visitors in front 10 minutes before the break while Lukasz Fabianski covered himself in glory with a string of fine saves.
The game turned on its head when Fernando Torres and Yossi Benayoun struck early in the second half but Arshavin equalised with a spectacular long-range strike and fired Arsenal back in front moments later.
The crowd had barely drawn breath when Torres slammed home his second of the match. Arshavin seemed to have had the last word with another wonderful finish as stoppage time approached but Benayoun levelled with virtually the last kick of the match.
It was an incredible game and, at the end of it all, Arsenal’s unbeaten League run has been extended to 19 games. However, their hopes of breaking into the top three have been dented – the Gunners are still five adrift of Chelsea having played a game more.
Arsene Wenger rang the changes from Saturday’s Wembley let-down. In came Bacary Sagna after a virus, plus Alex Song, Samir Nasri, Arshavin and Nicklas Bendtner. Two of those five changes were enforced with Robin van Persie (groin) and Emmanuel Adebayor (hamstring) taking Arsenal’s tally of injured players to seven.
Anyone with a sense of history would have been in their element tonight. Ray Kennedy, a wonderful servant for these clubs but tragically stricken with Parkinson’s Disease, was given a tremendous ovation from both sets of fans.
And as the teams emerged, it was hard not to recall the famous night 20 years ago when Michael Thomas snatched the title in stoppage time. Arsenal’s kit echoed the yellow and blue of Anfield ’89 but, alas, they were rather more than three points adrift of the leaders this time. Not so the hosts - Liverpool kicked off just one point behind Manchester United.
Much of the pre-match build-up had been dominated by complaints over the pitch at Wembley with Wenger not the only one to voice his concerns. He could have no complaints about this surface though. It was pristine and perfect for passing football.
That’s exactly what we got.
Arsenal played their part in a slick, high-octane start but Liverpool created the early chances. No prizes for guessing that Torres was the main threat. He burst away from Sagna and Kolo Toure in the third minute but shot straight at Fabianski. The Spaniard almost muscled his way through again moments later before his compatriot, Albert Riera, tested Fabianski again.
Arsenal’s keeper was criticised for his part in Saturday’s FA Cup exit but he looked solid, athletic and decisive here. The Pole rushed out to deny Benayoun after Dirk Kuyt’s clever pass inside the full-back and Fabianski got up quickly to smother Alvaro Arbeloa’s follow-up. A flying tip-over from Torres’ snap-shot was a further boost to Fabianski’s confidence.
The visitors’ passing had been neat and tidy but the clock showed 28 minutes before they seriously threatened Pepe Reina’s goal. Bendtner found Gibbs, the left-back swung in a cross and Daniel Agger’s ill-judged header landed at the feet of Cesc Fabregas. His control was on the money; his shot wasn’t.
Back came Liverpool. Torres stung the hands of Fabianski yet again and Samir Nasri kicked away Agger’s header from his own post.
The clever money seemed to be on a goal for the hosts. Instead, Arsenal struck. Javier Mascherano was caught in possession by Fabregas on the corner of the box and the Spaniard collected Nasri’s well-timed pass before squaring for Arshavin to fire in off the crossbar.
The goal stunned the home fans – and probably surprised the away section too. Liverpool went for an instant riposte but Fabianski flew to his right to push away Benayoun’s shot.
The Pole preserved Arsenal’s lead until the break but he was beaten just three minutes after the restart. Sagna’s clearance was miscued, Kuyt lifted the ball into the danger area at the second attempt and Torres directed his header into the bottom corner.
Suddenly it was all Liverpool.
With the Kop roaring them on, the hosts went for the jugular. Nerves frayed in the Arsenal box and another shaky clearance – this time from Gibbs – was ruthlessly punished. Once again Kuyt was the provider; his deep cross found Benayoun and the Israeli’s brave far-post header had just enough on it to cross the line.
The writing seemed to be on the wall for Arsenal but they hit back brilliantly 11 minutes later. Arshavin robbed Arbeloa 25 yards out and lashed a thunderous effort past Reina. Just three minutes later the Russian completed his treble. This time Fabio Aurelio hashed his clearance and Arshavin slammed the ball into the net. Incredible.
The drama wasn’t over. Two minutes later Riera swung in a cross and Torres held off Mikael Silvestre before beating Fabianski once again.
The pace was relentless and it showed no sign of abating as Liverpool chased the winner which would keep their title hopes on the boil.
Gibbs nodded another Torres header off the line as Liverpool pressed but Arshavin rounded off a slick breakaway with a precise left-footed finish to give Arsenal the lead yet again. That seemed to be that but Benayoun pounced in the dying seconds and both teams had to settle for the draw.
Frankly, neither side deserved to lose.
Referee: Howard Webb
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