Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Wenger Outwits Benitez in Arsenal's 4-4 Draw with Liverpool at Anfield

Liverpool and Arsenal served up another Premiership goal-fest tonight after another exhilarating 4-4 draw at Anfield. Andrei Arshavin scored four for Arsenal, and in doing so became the first opposing player in 60 years to complete the feat.

Fernando Torres and Yossi Benayoun both scored twice each as Liverpool's title challenge falters on the final straight...

Arsene Wenger's Arsenal team more than made up for Saturday's semi-final defeat to Chelsea by fielding an incredible attacking side at Anfield tonight. In the 4-4 draw, Andrei Arshavin was returned to the Arsenal team with devastating effect, scoring all four goals.

The Arsenal boss was widely pilloried for fielding a defensive team on Saturday as both Samir Nasri and Andrei Arshavin both founf themselves starting from the bench, eventually when they did make their way on to the pitch it was a real case of "too little too late" as the Gunners were beaten by a deserving Chelsea side.

In tonights match at Anfield, Wenger was widely expected to rest players and field a youthfull looking team. With the Gunners almost guaranteed fourth, this match was almost meaningless for them.

Perversely, if Arsenal actually lost it would be an advantage to them, as it would have meant that there would still be considerable pressure on Manchester United during the title run in.

Win and the title would almost certainly go to Manchester United, giving them room to rest players in preparation for the Champions League semi final with Arsenal.

With great credit to the wily French manager, Arsenal went to Liverpool to win. An attacking midfield five of Arshavin, Nasri, Fabregas, Denilson, and Song flustered the Anfield teams defensive set up, counter attacking with great speed and penetration.

While they attacked with great panache, they defended like they had never met each other. Liverpool were almost the exact same, going forward there looked to be goals at the end of every attack, while defensively they were also all at sea.

Arsenal, who are on their longest unbeaten run in the league since "The Invincibles" season of 2003-04, started the match in no mood to relinquish their latest run. Cesc Fabregas, in a much further forward role than he normally operates in, was finding himself in lots of space.

And everytime he found himself on the ball his first instinct was to spray it to the widemen, Arshavin on the left and Nasri on the right, who both looked increasingly dangerous.

However, it was Liverpool who almost drew first blood. Fernando Torres found himself in space as his thunderbolt made it's way to the top corner. As Arsenal fans held their heads in their hands, the much maligned Luckasz Fabianski flung himself at the ball as if his very life depended on it and produced a save of the highest order.

Dirk Kuyt, who had begun the match behind Torres, was lacking the kind of presence that Steven Gerrard brings to the table. His game is built more on effort and hard work, when this game needed a surgeon's touch, not a baby elephant's.

Torres continued to show his Liverpool team mates the way, he shrugged of Kolo Toure's challenge as if he were a child and hammered another shot towards Fabianski's goal, another save as Liverpool were beginning to get on top.

But while Torres was playing with great confidence, players like Javier Mascherano, Daniel Agger, and Fabio Aurelio all looked as if the massive occassion could be getting to them as they began to make schoolboy errors.

The opening goal came from one of Mascherano's many errors, Samir Nasri picked up the stray ball and produced a delightful pass with the outside of his right foot to a barely onside Cesc Fabregas, looking for the linesmans flag he cut the ball back to Andrei Arshavin, the Russian smashing the ball in off the underside of the crossbar.

Pepe Reina, had no chance with the goal, has endured a poor record against the Gunners. In eight games against the London team, he has yet to keep a clean sheet and after Arshavin's goal, this record will carry on into next season.

The game was slipping for Liverpool so Benitez had to act. At half time, he swapped Kuyt and Benayoun and immediately his team showed much better penetration. Torres was finally playing with a partner who had the skill to read his intelligent runs.

The two teams drew level almost immediately after the re-start. Bakari Sagna's error allowed Dirk Kuyt the time to pick out Fernando Torres with a superb cross from the right, and the Spaniards towering header brought Liverpool back into the game.

Playing into the Kop, Liverpool were drawn forward by their home crowd. The Arsenal goal was under siege in the early part of the second half as Liverpool, impetus regained, stormed forward.

Again Kuyt turned provider, again a costly Arsenal mistake. Fabianski, who had produced some fabulous saves while re-building his reputation, made an absolute howler of a pass to Kieran Gibbs.

The Dutchman picked up the stray pass and whipped it in to the near post where it was met by Yossi Benayoun's brave header, and with the Reds in the lead a wave of relief washed over Anfield.

The one way traffic continued. Liverpool looking to kill the game off kept piling forward as they searched for a third.

Unlike Saturday, Arsene Wenger decided to act quickly, Theo Walcott was brought on for Denilson, with Samir Nasri moving inside.

Moments later, Alvaro Albeloa was out-muscled by Russian strong-man Arshavin, whose shot took off like an arrow and swept past the out-stretched arm of Pepe Reina to draw Arsenal level.

Nasri's influence in the middle had already begun to show, Alonso and Mascherano looked unsure on how to deal with the new menace and two minutes after they had drawn level, Arsenal took the lead as the game switched on it's head.

Again Aurelio the guilty party. His poor pass found an unmarked Arshavin, who finished with aplomb to complete a quite stunning hat-trick.

With Arsenal re-gaining control, and Liverpool seemingly all at sea, the match took another twist as Fernando Torres scored his second, Liverpool's third, his team's equalizer, and the third goal in five minutes.

There was almost a fourth two minutes later, but Nicklas Bendtner's effort off the far post was overruled for offside.

Far from the match being the attacking affair that last week's Champions League classic against Chelsea, this matches goals were prime examples of all that is bad in English football.

Unforced errors, poor technique, and dreadful concentration had allowed players like Torres and Arshavin to capitalise with superb goals, but the cause of the goals was something that both managers will be extremely angry about.

If Fabio Aurelio plays again this season for Rafael Benitez, I will be amazed.

With the game rapidly moving towards it's climax, Kieran Gibbs goal line clearance from Fernando Torres' header saved his team from going a goal behind, Fabianski going missing.

Nicklas Bendtner's unselfish play set up the way for Arsenal to attack. His play with his back to goal brought all of Arsenal's attack minded midfield into the game and at times Alonso and Mascherano looked bewildered as yellow shirts bypassed them time and time again as they made their way to the mecca that was the Liverpool goal.

Liverpool's title challenge received the final nail in the coffin after Andrei Arshavin became the first opposing player in over 60 years to score four goals at Anfield as Arsenal gained the upper hand again.

But if we have learned anything this season about this Liverpool team, it's that they do not roll over and die easily. They found the strength to score again after Yossi Benayoun added his second goal of the game after another unforced error by the Arsenal defence.

And this mad-cap game still had time for one final error, Fabregas found himself in the clear with only Reina to beat but the referee called him back for offside. Fabregas, perhaps in professional time wasting, perhaps in mischief slotted the ball home even though the goal would not count.

Both managers will be furious with their defences after this game, the foundation of Liverpool's title challenge crumbled tonight when they were needed most and with Manchester United now level on points with two games in hand the title is in most probability gone for another season.

Arsene Wenger really pulled one out of the hat tonight. After Saturday's abject performance against Chelsea and with both top scorers of Adebayor and van Persie missing, many Gunners fans feared a real caning at Anfield tonight.

Instead Wenger went with an incredibly attack minded team, which caught Benitez off guard. They attacked from the start and played the game in a fantastic manner, shattering the illusion of Liverpool's dominant defence.

And when the game was slipping away after Benitez had re-shuffled his team to counter act Arsenal's penetrative runs, Wenger acted swiftly to swing the game back in Arsenal's favour by bringing Theo Walcott into the mix.

The result means that Liverpool's title charge is over.

And now the two best and most experienced managers in the league have to look back at last weekends FA Cup semi-finals and reflect upon the teams they sent out.

Had Wenger shown the same conviction and attacked from the start against Chelsea, God knows how the match would have turned out.

Had Alex Ferguson actually fielded his strongest available team, especially as Liverpool conceivably lost tonight—then he could have rested his players in meaningless Premiership fixtures, had they beaten Everton.

Matches are there to be won. And the best teams usually have the best attitudes. With that in mind, we'll be seeing these two teams challenging Manchester United for the title next year.

twitter / WillieGannon