Saturday, April 04, 2015

Three Things: Arsenal Cruise Past Liverpool 4-1

Arsenal hosted Liverpool today at the Emirates in a noon time kickoff, with the Gunners attempting to continue their March winning streak into April and Liverpool hoping to keep their fading Champions League prospects alive. One might have assumed Liverpool would be the slightly hungrier team, but that certainly wasn’t the case early, as the Gunners could and probably should have had at least two goals within an electrifying first six minutes, with Sanchez sending a decent effort wide within seconds, Ramsey scuffing a one-on-one with Mignolet and the Liverpool keeper just getting his hand in front of a decent Cazorla effort across goal. Arsenal were rampant, intercepting ball after ball, tackling well and barely giving Liverpool a chance to get past midfield.

Then, with 15 minutes past, Liverpool finally woke up and started pushing forward themselves, with a keystone kops period by the Gunners in their own box luckily not costing them. Yet that relief was short lived, as the Reds should have opened the scoring in the 19th minute, when a beautiful through ball to Markovic was laid off with a little too much weight for a charging Sterling, who would have had a simple tap in. Arsenal looked as if they were losing their cool and both their passing and defense began to suffer. A loose pass from Cazorla led to a quick counter in the 25th minute with Raheem Sterling sending a decent chance just wide and in the 29th minute a Sterling cross in the box was just a few feet long of a charging Henderson. Arsenal were suddenly giving the ball away recklessly and Liverpool were patching together 15 and 20 passes at a time. A tale of two halves of a half was developing, with the Gunners heading toward the worst of times.
Liverpool entered the game on a run of 10 clean sheets in their last 16 games and the early Gunner dominance failing to translate to a goal must have given them hope of bouncing back from the United loss a fortnight ago. But when they failed to take advantage of a few chances of their own, they let the Gunners back into the game. And that tough defense finally broke in a big way starting in the 37th minute, when a beautiful cross field pass from Ozil to Ramsey was pushed into Bellerin in the box. The Spaniard took two touches to the left to open up space and then sent a perfectly placed shot into the far corner. It was his second goal of the campaign and one to remember, plugging the burgeoning Liverpool ascendancy cold. A minute later, a Sakho foul led to an Arsenal free kick from about 24 yards out and Ozil sent a sublime shot to the far corner just past Mignolet (for their 20th free kick goal of the season, the most in the league). As has been the case often with Arsenal this year, two goals in quick succession all but settled the affair, this time in the first half. Liverpool weren’t giving up yet, though, and Coutinho sent a dangerous ball over the top in the 45th minute, which Ospina came out well to collect. A Coquelin interception a moment later fell to Koscielny who sent it forward to Ramsey. The Welshman laid it off to a charging Alexis Sanchez and right on the stroke of halftime, he cut in and then pounded it high and slightly to the right of center past Mignolet, making it 3-0, the first time the Reds headed into halftime with this deficit since 1994.

The second half started with Arsenal continuing to press Liverpool high as the Reds shifting to a 4-1-4-1 with Sturridge subbing in to take the spot in the center and Sterling moving to the wing. The first yellow card of the game came three minutes later, when Emre Can reacted rather violently to a foul call on Cazorla that seemed reasonable. Before the free kick, Koscielny came off for Gabriel, apparently due to an as yet undisclosed injury. Arsenal dominated the next few minutes, close to making it four nil, before Sterling create a little space just inside the box before sending his shot high. In the 53rd, Sanchez, appearing to be nearing the vitality of the first half of the season, collected a ball, made a nice turn and then sent it in toward Giroud, with Kolo Toure missing the ball but the Frenchman unable to react quickly enough. His header a minute later was well saved by Mignolet and a third was hit weakly right at the keeper.

In the 56th minute, nice work from Liverpool led to a decent Can effort, well saved by Ospina at the near post before Henderson had a decent chance two minute later, though he fluffed it high. Arsenal sandwiched the few Liverpool chances with dangerous counters, but failed to add that fourth goal that would almost definitively seal it. Ramsey came off in the 61st minute for Flamini, after appearing to pick up a knock in a clattering with Can. Arsenal started to settle into a more defensive shape and slowed down a Liverpool attack that did produce three half chances in under five minutes. Liverpool earned a corner in the 66th, after a much-improved Mertesacker sent a dangerous cross out. Bellerin cleared the resulting corner, continuing an impressive all around display that included a number of timely tackles and clearances.

In the 67th minute, Sterling clearly dove in the box after pushing into Bellerin, though Anthony Taylor, who up to that point was letting the game flow with a rather furtive whistle, ignored the affront. Then he appeared to change his tune, showing Bellerin a yellow in the 70th minute, for pulling Sterling down on what seemed a rather soft call. Ozil came off in the 73rd minute for Welbeck, just back from another impressive performance and goal for England against Lithuania last week. Two minutes later, Liverpool were given a route back into the game after Bellerin fouled Sterling in the box. Henderson stood up for the resultant penalty and scored past a diving Ospina, who got a hand to it but not enough to keep it out. Suddenly it was 3-1 with 15 minutes left and Gunner fans must have felt a few butterflies rustle in their stomach, knowing they gave up more points from winning positions in the first half of the season than any other team (with distant memories of the 4-0 lead they gave up to Newcastle before a last second penalty by Eboue in the 112th minute cost them two points against these same Reds a few weeks later, back in 2011). Taylor was suddenly overreacting with his whistle, taking away a Sanchez counter when he adjudged him to have fouled Lucas on a relatively clear steal.

In the 80th minute, Welbeck got the ball from Flamini and rushed toward goal, but he approached at an acute angle that was easily cut off by Mignolet, continuing his rather dubious streak of having no EPL goals this calendar year. Taylor was again questionably active in the 83rd minute, when he blew the whistle after a teammate clanged into Henderson, interrupting a Gunner chance. A minute later, Can fouled Welbeck for no apparent reason, earning his second yellow and a trip to an early shower. With 84 minutes gone, Liverpool would have to see out the game with 10 men, for the second time in two games (though last time around it was a full 44 without their captain Gerrard, of course). Welbeck had another chance to get off the league snide in the 88th minute, from two yards, but somehow got caught up in his own feet and blew the opportunity. Cazorla hit the post in the 89th minute, after a nice interchange of passes.

When Liverpool looked up at four minutes of extra time, one wonders whether they felt hopeful or merely melancholic. It was certainly the latter a minute later as Giroud completed an impressive Gunner performance with a spectacular shot from just outside the box after cutting in on Toure and sending it to the far corner with real resolve. It was the Frenchman’s 14th goal of an injury-shortened season, continuing his impressive form over the past three months. Welbeck had another shot in the 93rd minute, but probably should have crossed to Flamini for a fifth goal and then was called incorrectly offsides right before the final whistle.
In the end it was a 4-1 victory over Liverpool and a continuation of an impressive 2015 that included only three slip-ups so far (the New Years loss to Southampton, the 2-1 defeat at Spurs and the Monaco first leg disaster). Other than those three games, Arsenal have earned 30 points in the league this year (the most), won seven straight league games and 9 straight home league games, moving from fifth to second in the process. It is further evidence that, but for some costly mistakes during the first half of the season and against Monaco, Arsenal might still be vying for a title and Champions League final berth. Three quick thoughts on the game:
1. Ozil Ascendancy Continues: in the first 15 minutes, Ozil had some lovely passes and even showed some of his improving physicality, but then his game seemed to decline in quality and hunger for the next 20. Just as I was ready to decry his fading effort, he sent the pass forward to Ramsey that opened the scoring, then added a second himself with a truly sublime free kick. Ozil has improved dramatically this season and started to show why Arsenal spent the money they did to snatch him from Real, even as his performance over the entirety of the past two seasons has been better than most pundits admit.

2. A Season of Ifs: Both Arsenal and Liverpool might be thinking of the season this could have been but for slow starts from both. With Liverpool, it was a tepid start that saw them drop outside the top half of the table for a time and the last two performances in arguably their biggest games of the season. For Arsenal, dropped points from winning positions against, among others, these same Reds, are the difference between a title and the second place they might well be on their way to securing. They stand four points behind Chelsea after the win today, but the Blues have two games in hand. It appears that, for a second year running, they will fall just short of a title hunt, though this term it relates not to blow out losses in the money half of the season, but drawing a few too many games in the first three months. Arsenal have set themselves up well for next term, though, and can take the confidence of an impressive second half into the next season, maybe along with a second FA Cup in a row. Liverpool, on the other hand, might rue their dip in form in these last two games against United and Arsenal, as they now look unlikely to crack the top four and are thus arguably heading in the wrong direction, with the loss of Suarez as acute as many expected, and the possibility of playing Thursday night football in Europe looming as punishment for the fall.

3. Sterling: Raheem Sterling is in the news for all the wrong reasons of late, unwilling to accept a 100,000 pound a week offer from Liverpool as a wee 20-year-old and going on national TV to claim he is “flattered” by Arsenal interest. While the youngster clearly has the tools to become one of the greats, his 6 goals and 7 assists in 29 league games this season is hardly world class (if you add his cup goals, his totals rise to 10 goals and 8 assists). His inability today to have a positive impact on the game or score any of his chances only furthers fears that the early performances this year, coming on the tale of an impressive individual World Cup, have tapered off and his impressive speed and dribbling ability aren’t translating to enough goals for Liverpool. Sterling might want to do a little research on the endless array of overhyped youth who saw their talent wasted and their careers cut short. Liverpool is giving him the chance to play every week and there is no guarantee that would be the case anywhere else, including Real Madrid. Sterling could become a great, but he should seriously consider his future before opening his mouth again.

Arsenal next head to Burnley before their FA Cup semifinal against Reading while Liverpool attempt to get back to winning ways against Blackburn in their own FA Cup semi this Wednesday before returning home to face Newcastle. Arsenal will hope that Chelsea slip up in the next couple of weeks before what could be an important showdown against the Blues at the Emirates on April 26th. Liverpool, who have a winnable set of fixtures coming in, except for a trip to the Bridge that will be tough, will hope that United slip up and give them a chance to take back the fourth place that many thought would be theirs two short weeks ago.

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