By Nik Brumsack at Anfield
Martin Skrtel struck in the seventh minute of stoppage time to deny Arsenal all three points at Anfield on Sunday afternoon.
Having fallen behind to Philippe Coutinho’s deserved opener on the stroke of half-time, Arsenal instantly drew level when Mathieu Debuchy nodded home his first Gunners goal after the hosts had failed to clear Alexis Sanchez’s free-kick.
In an end-to-end second half, Olivier Giroud completed the turnaround after 65 minutes, combining with the impressive Santi Cazorla before firing a shot between Brad Jones’ legs.
But Skrtel had the final word right at the death, rising highest to head Adam Lallana's corner past the impressive Wojciech Szczesny. By that point, Liverpool had been reduced to 10 men - substitute Fabio Borini sent off for two bookable offences within 18 minutes of coming on.
This was probably the right result in what was a breathless encounter. But, having come so close to victory, Arsene Wenger will be disappointed that his team could not do quite enough to secure what would have been a crucial three points.
SETTING THE SCENE
Arsenal came into this game in confident mood, having won five of the last six in all competitions. Wenger’s men have - with the exception of the defeat at Stoke City earlier this month - impressed in recent weeks, so much so that the boss described last weekend’s victory over Newcastle as his side’s best performance of the season.
He made one change from that success, Calum Chambers returning after suspension to start at right back. As a result, Debuchy continued at the heart of defence, with Hector Bellerin not in the squad due to a slight ankle injury.
There was a place in the 18 for Theo Walcott, named on the bench having recovered sufficiently from the groin knock suffered while on international duty in November. Nacho Monreal was back on the bench too, as was 17-year-old Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
Much of the talk before the game had centred around February’s result here, when Liverpool blew Arsenal away with a scintillating attacking display.
Brendan Rodgers’ side are much-changed now though, and were missing two of the main protagonists from that afternoon - Daniel Sturridge was still sidelined due to his hip injury, while Luis Suarez has moved on to Barcelona.
Liverpool, with former Gunner Kolo Toure starting in a three-man defence, came into this fixture with their lowest league points tally after 16 games since obtaining three points for a win was introduced in 1981. They had, however, advanced to the semi-finals of the Capital One Cup with a 3-1 victory over Bournemouth in midweek.
In last season’s corresponding fixture, Arsenal were 4-0 down after 20 minutes.
While not as electric as on that Saturday afternoon in February, Liverpool did start the brighter of the sides, pressing Arsenal high up the pitch and forcing a series of early mistakes.
Steven Gerrard curled a free-kick just over after three minutes before Lallana flashed a shot off target.
Liverpool were dominating - with some 73 per cent of possession in the first quarter of an hour. But for all their control, Rodgers’ side struggled to test Szczesny.
Mathieu Flamini was booked for a foul on Coutinho as the game continued to follow a similar pattern - Liverpool pushed and probed but with little end product. In fact, it took the until 35 minutes to force the first real opportunity.
Left wing back Lazar Markovic was again involved, twisting and turning his way into the penalty area. He advanced towards goal but saw his low shot well smothered by the feet of Szczesny.
Soon after, Raheem Sterling - deployed in the centre forward role - turned away from Per Mertesacker and fed Markovic. The Serb was afforded time and space 20 yards out but curled his shot harmlessly over.
Liverpool did find a deserved opener on the stroke of half-time when Jordan Henderson found Coutinho inside the final third. The Brazilian stepped away from two challenges and arrowed a shot in off the post from just inside the area.
But instantly, and with the last action of the half, Arsenal responded. Gerrard was adjudged to have fouled Alexis, whose whipped free-kick found Mertesacker inside the area. His header was blocked but only as far as Flamini, who put the ball back across the six-yard box for Debuchy to nod beyond Jones.
The second half started in open fashion. Coutinho volleyed just wide from the edge of the area at one end, Cazorla embarked on a slaloming run before bending a shot past the post at the other.
That momentum was temporarily halted when Giroud and Skrtel collided in the Liverpool half. The defender hit the floor and was accidentally trodden on but, after a full six minutes of treatment, was fine to continue.
After that stoppage, both sides continued to threaten. Lucas shot wide when well-placed. Then, two minutes later, Sterling raced through the middle. He appeared to take the ball past Szczesny with his hand but was allowed to continue. With the angle tight, the forward -who received the European Golden Boy award before the game - dug out a cross which was met by Gerrard, who headed over.
Back came Arsenal, with Giroud curling a 20-yarder narrowly wide. Two minutes later, he found the target.
Kieran Gibbs raced forward from left back before playing a low ball into the forward's feet. He turned the ball round the corner for the influential Cazorla who, despite being forced wide, kept his composure to roll the ball back for Giroud to fire a low effort between Jones’ legs.
Liverpool tried to respond instantly, with Gerrard twice forcing Szczesny to save. Then Lucas again failed to find the target from the edge of the area, this time fizzing a left-footed shot inches wide.
Wenger introduced Francis Coquelin to shore up the midfield, and his introduction initially helped to quell Liverpool’s attacking threat.
The hosts did continue to make opportunities though. Borini was afforded the space to power a close-range header at goal, only to be denied by Szczesny’s superb reaction save. The Liverpool substitute was then sent off for two unnecessary bookings, the second of which was for a high challenge on Cazorla.
Szczesny continued to excel, touching a Sterling drive past the post and keeping out another Gerrard long-ranger.
But there was nothing he could do to stop Skrtel’s powerful header in the seventh of nine added minutes. It was a frustrating finish to what looked to have been the perfect early Christmas present for Arsenal.
Referee: Michael Oliver
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