Arsenal moved five points clear at the top of the Premier League with a wonderful 2-0 win over Liverpool at Emirates Stadium on Saturday evening.
Before kick-off, there were questions of Arsène Wenger’s side. They were leading the pack but could they beat their fellow title-chasers?
Over this 90 minutes they provided an emphatic, undeniable answer.
Santi Cazorla scored the first on 19 minutes by firing home after his own header had hit the post.
Then Aaron Ramsey, who else, sealed the victory with a thunderous effort from 25 yards.
Liverpool did not underperform. In fact, they were fluent and dangerous. But the home side smothered the significant threat they posed and took the chances that came to them.
That sounds simplistic but, in reality, it was underpinned with sweat, skill and steel.
This was a massive victory for this Arsenal team.
They WILL have a major part to play in the title race this season.
SETTING THE SCENE
Wenger made seven changes from the side eliminated from the Capital One Cup by Chelsea in midweek.
But in comparison to the side that had won 2-0 at Crystal Palace last weekend, there was only one change. Tomas Rosicky came in for the injured Mathieu Flamini.
Bacary Sagna made his 250th appearance for the club, Jack Wilshere was out of the squad with an ankle injury.
Mikel Arteta had been sent off at Selhurst Park but sat out his suspension on Tuesday against Jose Mourinho’s men.
Chelsea’s defeat at Newcastle at lunchtime opened up the opportunity for the home side to go five points clear with victory in this evening fixture.
Emirates Stadium was eager, excited and expectant and in equal measure.
The opening stages were perhaps too important to be fluent. Both sides had so much resting on the game.
The first sight of goal fell to Rosicky. He exchanged passes with Cazorla and rifled a shot across the face of goal. Simon Mignolet touched it wide.
However Liverpool had looked lethal in recent games and they would respond.
Jordan Henderson was given too much space and was almost in sight of goal before Sagna slid in to dispossess.
Then a Luis Suarez corner was flicked over the Arsenal defence to the far post by Steven Gerrard and was destined for the corner before Rosicky cleared his lines.
Liverpool seemed to have settled.
Then Arsenal scored.
Sagna roared down the right and sent a deep cross into the area. Cazorla’s header beat Mignolet but bounced back off the post. It fell to the Spaniard again and he had the poise to return a rasping shot into the empty net.
It was Cazorla’s first goal of the season. He raced to the corner flag, got down on his knees and beat the ground in celebration.
Seconds later he nearly beat Mignolet but the flying Belgian keeper clung on to his shot.
Liverpool tried to respond. Their speed and fluidity hushed the home crowd whenever they attacked However Arsenal had the clearer chances.
Mignolet made an unconvincing save from Ramsey’s shot and before the whistle Cazorla rolled a shot just wide.
Arsenal went into the dressing room at half time with the edge in the game and in the scoreline.
Liverpool went on the offensive after the restart. They pushed Arsenal back and might have equalised when Suarez found an unmarked Henderson at the far post.
He fired over when he should have hit the target and could have scored.
Again Arsenal would respond to with better chances. Olivier Giroud intercepted when Kolo Toure tried to find Martin Skrtel and the Frenchman went one-on-one when Mignolet.
He clipped his shot over the keeper but wide of the post.
Then Rosicky and Cazorla combined to find the Frenchman but he could only toe-poke an effort at Mignolet.
Arsenal were building momentum and it would culminate with a goal.
That said, the strike itself came out of nothing. Ramsey collected the ball 25 yards out, teed himself up and fired a vicious shot just over Mignolet and just under the bar.
Even the standard of his stellar season, it was an incredible goal.
Liverpool were not beaten yet. Having digested the goal, they went began the search for a way back. They began peppering the Arsenal area with corners and crosses. From one, Suarez bent a low cross-shot against the outside of the post.
Wenger brought on Nacho Monreal for Rosicky to shore up the defence. After the Spaniard set up Mesut Ozil to shoot, Wenger was forced into another chance when Kieran Gibbs went down holding his calf. Thomas Vermaelen replaced him at left back.
With eight minutes left, Wojciech Szczesny made crucial saves from Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho.
While Arsenal had been winning, conceding needless goals was a problem. But the Arsenal keeper seemed destined to preserve a clean-sheet this afternoon.
Even in the final seconds when Per Mertesacker passed the ball to Suarez and he curled an effort inches past the far post.
Szczesny deserved to be unbeaten this afternoon.
And, make no mistake, Arsenal deserved to win
Referee: Martin Atkinson
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