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By James Cunliffe at the Emirates Stadium
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Premier League: Arsenal 2 Liverpool 2
Dodgy at the back but at times scintillating in attack, the fact Arsenal could only manage a point against a Liverpool side unable to beat teams in the top 10 this term should speak volumes about their Champions League credentials.
Indeed, it required two goals in three second half minutes to even secure a point towards that end as the Reds threatened to inflict a classic away-day smash and grab.
Luis Suarez put the Reds ahead on five minutes after a calamity of Arsenal errors and Jordan Henderson doubled their lead on the hour, much against the run of play, but largely because of the Gunners’ fragility at the back.
Expectation but ultimately frustration was the outcome, the latter because all the ingredients seem to be there, in their offensive options at least.
Striker Olivier Giroud, for much of the contest, proved he is starting to find his feet after his summer move and he sparked the fightback four minutes after Liverpool doubled their lead.
Theo Walcott is thriving through the middle where he has always believed he should ply his trade. His runs pulled the visitors’ defence to and fro, while he levelled the scores with a confident finish of unerring power and accuracy.
But key to everything was Jack Wilshere who, while building on his recent performances, cast a significant shadow over the world-class talent of Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard that will, in the fullness of time, signal the passing of a metaphorical English midfield baton.
But for all this and the second half dominance of the home side, they cannot afford to give teams two-goal leads and, equally, they must find a killer extinct when faced with 20 minutes to complete the comeback and find a winner.
It was a breathless contest, the tone of which was sparked by the Keystone Cops routine that gave way to the opener from Suarez. First a Bacary Sagna slip allowed Glen Johnson to home in on goal and pick out Daniel Sturridge via a slip from Thomas Vermaelen. The Reds forward lost his balance slightly and saw Wojciech Szczesny block his shot, but Aaron Ramsey couldn’t gobble up the loose ball and it found its way to the Uruguayan whose shot wriggled in off Per Mertesacker’s boot.
From the restart, Walcott was presented with an instant chance to level but fired straight down the throat of keeper Pepe Reina.
The visitors had been set up to counter-attack and that’s where they found all their joy, with Suarez gladly playing in a deeper role, to great effect. The controversial forward proved he is just as adept at approach play as he is at finishing, picking out Sturridge with a sublime 30-yard pass only for the former Chelsea striker to snatch at his shot and pull wide.
As if unsatisfied with their series of blunders for the opener, Szczesny was then rather too relaxed in dealing with a backpass and failed to notice Sturridge lurking behind him but just managed to squirm the ball away from danger.
Arsenal, though, wrested control of the contest with Santi Cazorla unpicking the Liverpool defence with a series of through-balls, while Wilshere provided the drive and determination, on occasion zipping past Gerrard like he was a nobody. His Spanish midfield partner’s first effort saw Lukas Podolski drag back from the byline for Giroud to flash wide. It would precede a period where Liverpool struggled to get out of their own penalty area, in which Daniel Agger threw himself at a blast from the French forward, Gerrard denied him a tap-in and Reina got fingertips to a Walcott curler.
The Reds should have extended their lead just before the break when, on the counter-attack once again, Stewart Downing set Henderson free. The youngster beat Szczesny to the ball but with the keeper committed and on the edge of his area he opted to chip him, putting too much on an effort that sailed just over the bar.
The second half saw the Gunners fired up and when Walcott headed just over there looked only one team who would come up with the next goal. But against the run of play it was Liverpool again.
Henderson beat Andre Santos and Mertesacker on the edge of the area and a fortuitous ricochet off Aaron Ramsey and the Brazilian allowed the midfielder to roll into an empty net.
The Emirates fell into a stunned silence but the response was instant as Wilshere sent a free-kick Giroud’s way and the former Montpellier man did the rest, glancing a header in.
Things got even better three minutes later when Cazorla and Giroud worked a neat triangle in the 18-yard area to give Walcott space and the striker lashed the ball home with gusto.
With the Merseysiders rocking, there looked to be only one outcome but the Gunners couldn’t capitalise with Walcott lashing wide and Cazorla’s dangerous cross finding no-one.
Then came a mini period where the Emirates were treated to the the good, the bad and the ugly of Giroud. The forward forced a save from Reina, headed over the resulting corner, earned a caution for simulation and squandered a late tap-in to steal victory.
That was the last of Arsenal’s onslaught as Liverpool saw out the four minutes of added time and even went looking for a winner of their own.
A last-gasp Suarez shot squirmed through the grasp of Szczesny but wide of the goal to send their rivals away with a point, one that looks like a pass into the Europa League next term for both which, by Arsene Wenger’s standards, is unthinkable.
Arsenal: Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Podolski, Wilshere, Giroud, Walcott, Ramsey, Cazorla, Gibbs (Santos, 37)
Unused subs: Diaby, Koscielny, Rosicky, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mannone, Jenkinson
Liverpool: Reina, Johnson, Agger, Suarez, Gerrard, Henderson, Sturridge (Enrique, 71), Downing, Lucas, Carragher, Wisdom
Unused subs: Jones, Allen, Borini, Sterling, Shelvey, Skrtel
Referee: Kevin Friend