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Liverpool inflict damaging 3-1 defeat on Arsenal in disjointed display – after Alexis Sanchez is benched

PUBLISHED: 19:29 04 March 2017 | UPDATED: 19:31 04 March 2017

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger (second left) in the dugout during the Premier League match at Anfield, Liverpool.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger (second left) in the dugout during the Premier League match at Anfield, Liverpool.

PA Wire/PA Images

Liverpool beat Arsenal 3-1 here at Anfield in a game which saw Alexis Sanchez controversially benched – a decision that backfired on Arsene Wenger after a poor first half performance from his team cost them the game.

A goal on nine minutes from Roberto Firmino followed by a second six minutes before half time the impressive Sadio Mane put them 2-0 up before the break – as Arsenal gave a desperately disjointed and disappointing first half performance.

Danny Welbeck pulled a goal back for the Gunners on 56 minutes – after being put through by Sanchez – who Wenger brought on at half time by way of acknowledging his mistake.

But it was to no avail as the North Londoners fell to another damaging defeat after a late goal from Georginio Wijnaldum made it 3-1 - in a result which could threaten Arsenal’s Champions League qualification for next season.

The shock before the game was of the news a completely fit Alexis Sanchez was benched – with the feeling Wenger wanted to ‘try something new’ in this crucial game at Anfield.

Aaron Ramsey returned for a place on the bench, with Laurent Koscielny starting after going off injured early in the second half of Bayern Munich’s 5-1 rout of the Gunners.

Midfielder Mohamed Elneny is out for three weeks with an ankle injury and Mesut Ozil was sent home from training on Thursday after a bout of flu.

Liverpool’s captain Jordan Henderson was still injured with a foot injury while nippy forward Daniel Sturridge missed the match through a knock on the hip.

There was time for a trip down memory lane during the long drive up to Anfield. Recollections flooded back of 6,000 Arsenal fans packed into the away end at the Anfield Road stand for a League Cup third round tie, the night the late, great David ‘Rocky’ Rocastle struck one of the sweetest shots in Arsenal history in October 1988.

That trio of cup games against the mighty Reds was a precursor to that immortal evening eight months later when – despite what Manchester City fans say – the greatest climax to a league season ever occurred. So legendary was the feat it is still simply known as Anfield 89 to every Gooner on the planet.

Or of the larrikin Paul Merson breaking through and flicking the ball into Liverpool’s net in March 1991 in a crucial 1-0 win. Thereby signposting another league title under Glorious George Graham later that spring – helping to end decades of Anfield hegemony at a club still reeling from the trauma of the Hillsborough disaster.

Of Ian Wright and Anders Limpar netting in a joyful 2-0 triumph in August 1993 in another win. And of course various thrashings over the years – ranging from a meaningless 4-0 Michael Owen-inspired rout in 1998 - days after Wenger’s men had clinched the title. Owen would of course thrill briefly months later on a magical if ill-fated night against the Argentines in St Etienne at France 98.

Whereas Wenger and his teams would enthral the footballing world with their talent and tenacity playing at the height of their powers between 1998 and 2006.

Those were glorious years to be an Arsenal fan - but alas it seems the stardust the Frenchman sprinkled on everything he touched during those memorable years has faded.

To the point - according to some fans – that recalling such dominance is now such a painful undertaking - such is the slide back into, if not mediocrity, then frustrating repeated failures to challenge at such a rarefied air.

For since then, although Liverpool’s only league win in their last nine home games against Arsenal was a 5-1 humiliation of Wenger’s team in February 2014, and the fact the Reds have kept just two clean sheets in the last 22 league meetings between these two giants of the English game, with none in the last 10 at Anfield – the fact is this historic fixture which used to grip the footballing world, is now relegated to a sideshow while silverware-winning-fight it out at the top of the Premier League.

It shouldn’t have to be like that. For Liverpool is and will always be a massive club in a proud city that refused to die. That, through a working class solidarity took on the might of the establishment in proving the real truth about a seismic event that even today is still unfolding.

The Liverpool Memorial, dedicated to those who lost their lives at Hillsborough is testament to the spirit of the people in this proud, vibrant city on the cusp of resurgence on and off the pitch.

But can Arsenal say the same? Wenger looked a broken man in the aftermath of the embarrassment of shipping five at Bayern Munich, and even a win in the cauldron of Anfield, a performance to restore a modicum of lost pride against the Germans on Tuesday night at the Emirates and a victory against non-league minnows Lincoln City next Saturday will not see opponents change their view of him.

Namely, that the dignified if tired looking Frenchman should call it a day at the end of this season - as he can no longer produce elite teams that can win elite trophies in order for the club to progress.

The clamour for him to go has intensified to fever pitch after the team suffered four damaging defeats out of their last 10 Premier League matches - after only losing four of the previous 35.

The fact that they have only won one of their last five away matches in the league and kept one clean sheet in the last eight has added to the belief that this team is a simply a flat-track bully which has flattered to deceive in the opening months of this season – as they have done over the last few years.

But they are nothing if not entertainers after scoring 28 goals in 12 away fixtures so far this season – and that boded well for this fixture in terms of entertainment levels at the very least.

With memories of the Andrei Arshavin-inspired absurd 4-4 in April 2008, and of course the dramatic 3-3 draw last season still fresh in the memory, questions were also asked if this fixture would add to the record 16 goals scored in the 90th minute or later.

We were to find out on a raucous evening at the revamped Anfield as the iconic Liverpudilian anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone was belted out with genuine passion. A passion imbued with more meaning than ever in light of the courage and solidarity of the Hillsborough survivors and their friends and families have showed.

And as referee Madley blew to start the game noise levels at this grand old ground reached fever pitch.

With Sanchez controversially dropped to the substitutes bench the far less mobile Oliver Giroud operated as Arsenal’s lone striker up top in a game Arsenal simply couldn’t afford to lose.

But with only nine minutes gone Roberto Firmino lifted the ball into the net over a despairing Petr Cech after the ball fell to him in a crowded box.

The cross came in from the right. He took a touch with his exceptionally ‘quick feet’ then with a cool head fired past the Arsenal keeper to make it 1-0 - as the majority of the ground erupted in loud celebration.

What could Arsenal do to retaliate?

Not much it appeared as Liverpool’s impressive movement and work rate saw the visitors stretched as the Reds attacked earnestly in the hunt for a second goal.

On the half hour Cech was alert to a powerful shot from another Liverpool player with a superb touch and technique, Philippe Coutinho, as he tipped the Brazilian’s drive over the bar. Again questions had to be asked over the amount of space and time he had on the edge of the Arsenal box.

It must have been hard to watch for the loyal travelling Arsenal fans as their team looked sluggish and placid against what can only be described as a hungrier Liverpool side.

On 39 minutes their agony was doubled as tenacious work by James Milner down Arsenal’s right flank saw the ball worked to an increasingly impressive Sadio Mane. The 24-year-old former Metz player wasted no time in teeing the ball up before slotting past Cech with a low angled drive to make it 2-0.

It was nothing more than Liverpool deserved. Coutinho could and should have made it 3-0 with his superb touch and technique moments before the break but Cech blocked his shot.

As referee Madley blew for half time you could hear boos from the away end. Based on the first half performance you couldn’t blame them.

Sanchez started the second half as Wenger took off the ineffective Francis Coquelin – thereby admitting his bold experiment to ‘try something different’ had failed utterly.

Arsenal looked far livelier from the off as his rare decision to make a change during the break nearly paid dividends – with the Chilean involved in an early move that saw keeper Simon Mingolet palm a header from Giroud up into the air before it bounced meekly on the bar and then into his grateful arms.

It was a warning Liverpool failed to heed as Sanchez then played Welbeck through on goal. The former Manchester United man showed his undoubted finishing ability by calmly firing past an onrushing Mingolet to make it 2-1 on 56 minutes.

There followed a period of probing from both sides as the importance of this game sunk in.

Sadio Mane illuminated proceedings with a glorious example of his talent. In one moment of skill in fighting off an Arsenal defender before moving the ball to a colleague he showed footballing intelligence, pace, power, finesse, touch and technique. It was wonderful to watch.

On 73 minutes Wenger made a double substitution by bringing on Lucas Perez and Theo Walcott for Giroud and Welbeck as the Gunners sought an equaliser in order to avoid another damaging defeat.

But it was to no avail as Liverpool could become the first team to do five Premier League doubles against Arsenal when Wijnaldum fired home a late third to make the final score 3-1.

Liverpool:

Mignolet, Clyne, Wijnaldum, Milner (c), Coutinho (Origi), Firmino, Klavan, Mane (Alexander-Arnold), Lallana, Can, Matip

Arsenal:

Cech, Koscielny (c), Giroud (Perez), Oxlade-Chamberlain, Iwobi, Monreal, Mustafi, Welbeck (Walcott), Bellerin, Xhaka, Coquelin (Sanchez)

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