Robin Van Persie had never previously found the back of the net against the Reds during his 8 years in English football. By 3 PM on Saturday afternoon Arsenal’s in form Dutchman had two Anfield goals to his name. In the process, inflicting two potentially critical blows to Liverpool’s Premier League aspirations this season.
Van Persie’s first – a well-placed header – came against the run of play, after a period of sustained Liverpool pressure, but a period which had bared only a single goal.
A brilliantly executed second came in injury time and stole Arsenal a win which had barely looked likely and one which denied the Reds even the consolation of a point from a match which they should surely have won themselves.
For all the importance – and it should not be understated – of claiming a first trophy in six years with victory over Cardiff City in the Carling Cup final the previous weekend; it is Liverpool’s Premier League performance which will be the primary gauge of any progress.
In that regard, defeat against the Gunners could yet prove to have significant consequences. A top four finish now appears an increasingly unlikely possibility.
Liverpool headed into what was a crucial Premier League fixture aware that a victory would give significant encouragement to their hopes of qualification for next season’s Champions League. Anything less would have the opposite affect.
Whilst both of Arsenal’s pre-match injury doubts – Van Persie and Thomas Vermaelan – recovered in time to make the starting XI, Kenny Dalglish was deprived of the services of Daniel Agger, Glen Johnson and – most prominently – Steven Gerrard from the cup winning team.
In spite of those absences, Liverpool dominated the early exchanges and the Anfield faithful could rightfully have expected the Reds to be two or three goals to the good before Van Persie’s announced his presence.
However, we have been here before. Some enticing build-up play, combined with an eagerness to close the visitors down when in possession, allowed Liverpool to capitalise on some haphazard Arsenal defending. Although, as so often this season, the finishing touch was absent.
A first genuine chance came from the penalty spot. Intricate inter-play between Dirk Kuyt and Luis Suarez in the penalty area released the latter. As Suarez attempted to take the ball around Wojciech Szczesny the Arsenal ‘keeper upended him. Mark Halsey pointed to the spot but, despite denying Suarez a genuine chance to open the scoring, Szczesny escaped further caution.
The next act could have been scripted. Kuyt – scorer of a crucial shoot-out penalty the previous weekend – stepped up to become the latest Liverpool player to be denied from the spot. Szczensy dived to his right to push the shot away; whilst Kuyt missed, arguably, an even better chance from the rebound.
The Reds had again wasted the opportunity to capitalise on their early dominance. And, when a goal did arrive shortly after, Liverpool were reliant on the generosity of Laurent Koscielny.
Jordan Henderson was released in space down the right, with Arsenal short of numbers. Henderson crossed hard and low to the near post. Koscielny had to deal with the ball, with Suarez lurking, but could only divert the it into his own net.
This was an improved display from Henderson, who was always available for possession. Yet a glaring question remains as to why the young midfielder is being used on the right flank. As the match progressed it seemed ever more obvious to move Henderson into a central role in place of Charlie Adam or Jay Spearing; with Maxi Rodriguez or Craig Bellamy slotting into a more familiar right wing position. Yet it was not until late in the game that any such change was contemplated.
Henderson himself had a fine chance to double the lead when he cut in from the right and was released by Kuyt, as the Gunners were cut open once again. Henderson was denied by Szczesny. Whilst, Suarez struck a post from the angle with an equally inviting opportunity from the rebound.
Despite struggling to make an impression on the game and – bar an early Theo Walcott effort – barely venturing towards the Liverpool penalty area, Arsenal were level on 31 minutes.
Van Persie’s presence had been muted up until that point. However, afford him space in the 6-yard box – as Jamie Carragher did – and a striker in such a rich vein of form will make easy work of placing a close-range header beyond Pepe Reina from Bacray Sagna’s cross.
In spite of that set back, Liverpool continued to make the bulk of the play and always looked the most likely team to find the winner – if only they possessed a genuine goal scorer of the ilk of Van Persie.
Some excellent individual play by Suarez created another clear chance but Szczesny dealt with his rather tame effort. Kuyt then turned Adam’s cross against the post with the Polish ‘keeper finally beaten, as Liverpool showed no let up to their threat.
Martin Kelly was presented with Liverpool’s two best opportunities of the second half. First, Martin Skrtel rose to head Henderson’s deep cross into the six-yard box; but Szczensy reacted to beat Kelly to the ball. Kelly then somehow failed to convert a glorious chance from no more than four yards out, following Kuyt’s delivery.
Walcott gave the Reds a forewarning of what was to come when Reina had to deal with his deflected effort. And, despite their absolute superiority over their visitors, the inevitable happened.
The winner came as the game entered a lengthy period of injury time; thanks largely to a succession of injuries to Arsenal players – most notably Mikel Arteta. Van Persie narrowly evaded the offside flag and met Alex Song’s flighted ball with a first time volley, which found the near corner of Reina’s net.
Yet another failure to convert dominance on home turf into victory had left Liverpool and Dalglish with the, almost certain, prospect of a third consecutive season without the wealth and prestige of top level European football.
Arsenal – or should that be Robin Van Persie – reminded Dalglish and co. that it is goals which get the greatest reward. The Dutchman was presented with just two chances and departed Anfield with two goals. There was certainly a lesson in that for many of the men in red.
Liverpool: Reina, Kelly, Carragher, Skrtel, Enrique, Spearing, Adam, Henderson, Downing, Kuyt, Suarez.
Man of the Match: DIRK KUYT
Typically tenacious display from Kuyt. Links play well and always open for possession. Although, he really should have opened the scoring in the first half.