The momentum generated from Liverpool’s recent good run of form, including the weekend Derby victory, was somewhat tempered by a disappointing defeat at The Emirates Stadium on Wednesday evening.
Arsenal triumphed 1-0 in a contest between two sides who were clearly short of fire power upfront. Two sides who were some way off the level of attacking potency and confidence so often displayed by the Premier Leagues current top two.
In truth this was a contest that was there for the taking for either side. Although it didn’t seem likely that either would do so, until Abou Diaby’s headed winner in the 72nd minute. A goal which seemed too simple and particularly disappointing considering the Reds had generally coped comfortably with the Arsenal attack. Liverpool had periods of possession and pressure during the match. But simply did not seem to carry enough of an attacking threat to capitalise in a game they should not really have lost.
It is too easy to say that had Fernando Torres been on the field for the Reds this could well have turned out to be a different story. However there were times throughout the match when Arsenal did look vulnerable. During recent games both Manchester United and Chelsea have ruthlessly exposed the Gunners defensive weaknesses, particularly on the counter-attack. And Liverpool were presented with similar opportunities here. Yet perhaps this is just further evidence that the Reds squad is considerably short of the genuine quality and experience in attacking areas, required to compete at the top.
The prime example at the Emirates was the golden chance which was presented to David N’Gog early in the second half. With the home side caught short on numbers at the back, Steven Gerrard slid the ball between Vermaelan and Gallas, giving the Frenchman a run at goal. Gallas deserves credit for a very good challenge. However N’Gog failed to demonstrate the necessary strength nor compsure at the crucial moment.
This was not a completely isolated incident. There were other occasions when Liverpool could have made more of opportunities, with the Gunners short at the back. Although Gerrard was attempting to be the driving force through the middle, he was not able supported. Both N’Gog and Maxi Rodriguez lacked composure or awareness at times on the counter attack. Whilst Kuyt failed to replicate his recent good performances on the right.
Arsenal too appeared short in the final third during the first period. With Arsenal largely playing in front of them, Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel coped well. And on the few occasions the hosts were able to get behind, the Reds were fortunate that the players who profited – notably Nicklas Bendtner and early substitute Thomas Rosicky – lacked compsure in front of goal to trouble Pepe Reina.
Arsenal’s Andrey Arshavin, so lethal against Liverpool in recent meetings, didn’t appear at his threatening best, before eventually being substituted. Fortunately for the Reds the diminutive Russian wasn’t able to add to his previous record of 5 goals from 7 shots against them.
A well worked move found Lucas in space in the area. But the Brazilian drove his shot over the crossbar from an unusually advanced position – but perhaps one he should be encouraged to take up more often. However that was a rare moment, as Liverpool’s lightweight front line failed to regularly test the Gunners in the final third.
With the game finally coming to life after the interval, a goal seemed more likely. And it was Diaby who struck, finding space in the area to head home from Rosicky’s good cross from the right. Giving a vital boost to Arsenal’s faltering title challenge.
Once the deadlock had been broken the Reds were forced to commit more men forward in an attempt to salvage a result. The introduction of Ryan Babel belatedly gave the Reds more presence in attack. Babel’s effective cameo demonstrated that the Dutchman has the potential to add a much needed dimension to the Reds attack, if only he could fulfil his promise on a regular basis.
Babel came closest to finding the net for the Reds. His powerful effort had to be tipped on to the bar by Manuel Almunia, having worked space for himself on the edge of the box.
Liverpool piled the pressure on the Arsenal defence in the closing stages, without ever looking genuinely like breaking through. In the dying seconds Cesc Fabregas should certainly have been punished for blocking Gerrard’s goal bound free kick with his arm. However the decision to award a penalty would have been border line.Perhaps that uncertainty influenced Howard Webb’s decision to somehow overlook the incident, despite Liverpool protests.
Prior to kick-off the talk had been optimistic, with Arsenal’s confidence low and a potential win taking the Reds within 2 points of the Gunners and third place. Ultimately a frustrating reversal has left Liverpool 8 points adrift of their North London rivals – a gap probably now too great to bridge in the remainder of the season. And attention now reverts back to fending of fourth spot from the chasing pack and the tough battles which lie ahead.